Life, The Universe, and Consciousness: Thoughts following my 60th birthday

M31, from the Hubble Space TellescopeSome of you know that I had thought I would write something deep or reflective to mark my 60th birthday. Well, yesterday came and went, and it was good: time spent with family, with data, with photos, and with live music. But I made it to 60; the brother of a friend had his life cut short yesterday at 17. There was no reason for him to die so young, just as there was no reason for me to make it this far.  Life is full of small decisions and random occurrences, some of which have no impact and some of which lead to dramatic, unintended, and totally unexpected consequences.  The universe truly does not care about us; it was here before us and will be here long after we are gone. But the thing is, as conscious, sapient products of the universe, we have the opportunity, for a fleeting instant of time, to experience it. Revel in that. Absorb all that life throws at you. The vast (no, make that VAST*) majority of all matter that exists has experienced nothing, and never will.  You can.  Marvel at that fact for a moment, then marvel at the fact that you are capable of marveling, then get back to the joyous task of experiencing all that your sense organs take in, all that your nervous system can process.  Some of it is good; some of it is bad.  But all of it IS, and through a combination of luck, fortuitous decisions, and a long history of success by our evolutionary predecessors, you and I can recognize that ISness.  Appreciate that.  I am confident that 17-year-old Troy did so for his all-too-short life, and I will continue to do so for whatever time I have left.

* used in the Dawkinsian sense.

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An Open Letter to my RDA Students

Dear RDA Students:

I write as I contemplate the grades that I should record for each of you for your work this semester. As this is an open letter and people not familiar with me or with the class might read it, I should clarify some things.  First, Research Design and Analysis 1 is the first course that psychology majors take on the road to becoming true psychologists. Students learn the one distinguishing skill that characterizes all psychologists: the ability to measure, quantify, and analyze behavior. Second, although I have been doing these things professionally for nearly 40 years, this is the first time I have taught this course. [And to those few students who rose to the challenge of the course, attended class, and put effort into your work, read this knowing that I appreciate your efforts. This does not refer to you.]

At the outset of the semester you each received a syllabus that described the material to be covered and the work that you would be expected to complete. It also indicated the consequence of turning material in late: homework more than two days late would not be accepted; papers would lose 10% per day for each day past the due date. The grading scale was presented clearly: the value of each assignment was stated, with their total summing to the 1600 points possible.  Earn 60% of these points and you pass the course, 70% for a grade of C, 80% for B, 90% for an A.

In order to proceed to RDA 2 a grade of at least C (2.0) must be earned in this course.  A grade of 2.0 indicates an understanding of the course material that might allow you to succeed in RDA 2; a grade below 2.0 has in the past characterized the student who will struggle in RDA 2, hence the department-mandated restriction on who proceeds to RDA 2.

I had very hard decisions to make. If I assigned course grades according to the scale published in the syllabus, all of you would pass the course, but more than 70% of you would not move on to RDA 2.  I do not for a moment believe that the large number of grades < 2.0 reflects a lack of ability–no, what I saw was a lack of motivation, ownership, and caring:

  • Attendance was terrible, with many of you missing lectures or labs frequently. Poor attendance affected your performance on exams and lab quizzes–if you are not present when we work through examples in class it is no surprise when you cannot work through comparable problems on an exam.
  • Written work, when it was turned in, reflected a lack of caring and attention to detail. You were given explicit information about the format of papers (for non-psychologists, this format is mandated by the American Psychological Association, and is the standard for most written work done in psychology). As an example, more than 40% of you single-spaced part of the paper, forbidden in APA style and repeatedly corrected by me in your drafts.
  • Fewer than 40% of you turned in the required draft of the final paper on time, and about 20% turned it in three days late (I guess those 100/1600 points weren’t important to the 45% who never turned it in). Success in life requires stepping up, folks.
  • The median number of studies cited in the Introductions of your research papers, meant to review the literature on your topic, was 1. 1.  ONE.  A review of the literature citing a single study stretches the meaning of  the word “review.”
  • We spent the semester learning about statistical tests that inform decisions about the result of behavioral studies. Only 55% of you correctly reported such inferential statistics in the Results section of your papers.

So what am I to do? Rather than assign the grades earned, I decided to give you the benefit of the doubt: perhaps some of you would be capable of doing well with a professor who does a better job than do I of coaxing the work out of you.  However, I cannot in good conscience pass you along to RDA 2 if you are not capable of doing the work.  So, I decided to assign as your course grade the higher of

  • one grade level above the actual calculated course grade (e.g., if you earned a 2.3 this would be 2.7), or
  • your average grade on the exams and papers (ignoring homework, drafts, and lab quizzes).

This assumes (I think reasonably) that the ability to demonstrate an understanding of the material in exams and papers is important: if you can do that you can succeed in RDA 2.  Note that this exam/paper average resulted in NO penalties for those drafts of Paper 2 that were never turned in, as I did not include the grades on drafts in these calculations.  However, some of the lowest course grades were earned by people who failed to turn in the draft on time; perhaps the final paper would have been better if it incorporated my feedback on the draft…

Life requires participation; success requires ownership. Own your work; care about your work; treat your work as if it matters. If you can’t be bothered to put effort into an assignment in a class, why should anyone expect that you will put effort into an assignment given to you by an employer, or by a mentor in graduate school?   Why should a client expect that you will put effort into helping her get better?  Why should a collaborator expect you to do your share on a project?  Demonstrate that you are willing to put effort into a project and those around you will give you the benefit of the doubt.  You need their trust and support, as the world generally does not care about you.

Sincerely,

Your caring and disappointed professor

 

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Acceptance

morgan-freemanRecent events at Marshall High School prompt this post. A parent complained to the school administration about a bulletin board urging acceptance of transgenders and the display was removed. [EDIT 4/1/2015: It appears that the removal of the display happened before the parents met with school officials, and might have occurred simply because it was time for another group to mount a display.] Some students feel that their attempt to increase visibility and acceptance of others was stifled, while others are apparently praising the removal of the display. The school rock was painted with a message of acceptance, painted over surreptitiously in the night, and then repainted with another message of acceptance.

I simply want to add a few words about the science of gender—what we know about the origin of gender identity and the extent to which gender or sexual orientation a choice.

Short answer: no choice involved. Gender appears to be as much a part of one’s biological make-up as is handedness.  Mammals are born with

penis or clitoris,
scrotum or labia,
vas deferens or uterus,
XY chromosomes or XX chromosomes,
large sexually dimorphic nucleus or small sexually dimorphic nucleus,
few hypothalamic estrogen receptors or many hypothalamic estrogen receptors.

You probably think that everyone possesses all of the first or all of  the second items in these pairs. Wrong! Most who think of themselves as male have all of the first elements, and most who consider themselves female have all of the second, but many people are a combination of some from Column A and some from Column B. We have no control over the combination that we are dealt. Instead we are to a great extent controlled by it.

In particular, in the absence of hormonal exposure during fetal development, the brain will become female. Regardless of what the genitals look like, the individual will likely think of herself as female.  If testosterone is present in the brain as it develops, the brain will become male, and the individual will think of himself as male, again regardless of the appearance of the genitals. It is the sex of the brain that plays the greatest part in determining gender identity, and this is something that the individual did not choose and cannot change.

There are people who have XY (male) chromosomes who are in every other way female, and people with XX chromosomes who are male. There are people with penises whose brains are female, and people with clitorises whose brains are male.  If your brain has developed in a manner that finds males attractive sexually, you will find males attractive sexually, regardless of what your genitals look like.  If your brain is a brain that likes females, you will like females, no matter what your genitals look like.  There is no (zero, nada, nil) evidence that sexual orientation is chosen.

So, non-accepting people, regardless of what your genitals look like, if you don’t like guys, don’t hit on them; if you don’t like girls, don’t try to hook up with them. Go for the people you like, and let others do the same.  Be who you are, and let others do the same. It’s that simple.

Peace.

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Integrity

Our psychology majors are typically headed for one of two careers: they want to help people as counselors or clinicians, or they want to extend out knowledge by becoming behavioral scientists.  Both routes are potentially rewarding options, and both contribute importantly to society.  Both also require ethics and integrity.

Rhythm Society Orchestra at the Bohm

Rhythm Society Orchestra at the Bohm

I’m thinking about this as I sit in a quiet office as our students enjoy Spring Break.  The need for integrity does not begin when you enter the the counseling center or the laboratory and end when you leave.  It’s a quality that you must possess and display all the time, or your work will not be taken seriously. Years ago a student explained to a a colleague of mine that she had to miss an important in-class exercise on the day before Spring Break (probably an exam, but it could have been anything) for a good reason (maybe an unchangeable doctor’s appointment, or a dead grandparent — the stated reason doesn’t really matter).  Then she posted photos of herself and some friends at he beach (or on the ski slopes, or wherever) with a boast about taking off early for Break.  Students left behind were none to happy about this, and of course the prof found out. She was thereafter known to us as Spring Break Girl — we doubted her word at every juncture, and I’m sure thought long and hard about offering positive recommendations on her behalf, as she could not be trusted.

I had a similar recent experience.  A student indicated that for transportation-scheduling purposes she had to leave early for Break, resulting in her missing a class.  Given that Break is scheduled at least a year in advance I am never happy about this kind of thing, but there’s little I can do about it (class is important, material covered is hard to make up, and attendance counts toward the grade, but students have their priorities).  So, I acknowledged that leaving early is not a good idea, but wished her a good Break. Then that evening, hours after the class, I attended a local concert and who should be in the audience but… her. I don’t know why she chose to lie about her reason for missing class, but I will remember this incident.

Students: the opinion that others have of you is important.  Academic success (doing well on exams, writing good papers, excelling on standardized tests) is important, and makes a difference to your future success. But so too does how people feel about you, and whether people trust you or not. I routinely ask myself one simple question before I write a positive letter of recommendation: “Is this student someone whom I could recommend to a friend?” Obviously if the student cannot write a simple sentence, or routinely fails exams, the answer is “no” and I will not write the letter. Similarly, no matter how academically gifted the student is, if the student has demonstrated that s/he is not to be trusted the answer is also “no.”  If you’ll lie about something as trivial as the reason for missing a class, what else might you lie about?  Therapy and science both require integrity; if you plan to go into either of these areas don’t squander the trust that others are willing to place in you.

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Upcoming Opportunities to Make a Difference

1502645_10152590262963897_4041982096404441761_oWinter — blah! — January and February are grey, bleak months offering little of value. Here are some events that will allow you to have fun and help others.

Friendly folks delivering some firewood to the homeless camp before it was destroyed by city officials.

Friendly folks delivering some firewood to the homeless camp before it was destroyed by city officials.

The Blues Jam and Chili Cook-Off occurs annually on the last Saturday in January at Marshall’s United Methodist Church. The 23rd annual event occurs Saturday, Jan 31 with music starting at 6:00 PM and lots of delicious chili to eat. Donate what you can — proceeds benefit the Haven of Rest, a homeless shelter in Battle Creek. With winter temperatures as cold as we’ve seen lately, the homeless have an even harder time than usual. Last year Battle Creek evicted the homeless from an established camp; only through the good graces of some big-hearted people were they able to find alternate shelter.  Let’s do what we can to help.  And don’t forget — the chili and music are both hot that night!  Among the bands that will perform are some of my local favorites: The R & D Project, Pogo Rey and Blue Haze, Laditude, probably Whiskey Rhythm and Slytones.

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Then on February 15 check out Cabin Fever Bands for a Cure at Marshall’s Backroads Saloon, 3:00 – 9:00 PM.  Everyone has a family member or friend whose life has been touched by cancer; this event raises money to help fight the disease. $5 to get in, of which $4 go to the American Cancer Society.  Other fund-raising will occur at the event as well. So far the performers include Whiskey Rhythm Band, Laditude, Freeburn School of Music, T.Y.P.O, Slytones, & Skyler Davis.  This is the first year for Cabin Fever, but each summer the same organizers host Jam for a Cure, always a good time.  Cabin Fever Bands for a Cure will likely be just as awesome.

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How I Met Bosco (or: Coincidence or Fate?)

Unrelated to neuroscience, or at best tangential (because everything we do is related to neuroscience).

Pogo Rey

Pogo Rey

Each summer Battle Creek hosts a wonderful outdoor music festival – Leilapalooza. Five venues scattered around the beautiful Leila Arboretum host bands and soloists pretty much non-stop from 10 AM – 10 PM on a Saturday in July.  Musical genres are varied, from Celtic folk and Tejano through classic rock, hard rock, and nihilistic sounds that pass for music in some alternate universe.  I go for the music, and for the chance to take photos.

In 2013 I approached a stage where Pogo Rey and Blue Haze were playing – low-key blues done as well as they can be.  I took a few photos and stood listening, then Rey shouted out (in my general direction), “Hi Bosco!” I turned around to see who Bosco was, and there was nobody there.  I turned back and Rey again shouted, “Hi Bosco! I haven’t see you for a while!” I shook my head to indicate the he had the wrong guy, and he looked a bit sheepish (well, as sheepish as he ever could, which is not much).  After their set I spoke with him, reminding him that we had met before a few times when I photographed them.  He told me that my fedora had confused him – I nearly always wear one when I’m in my photographer alter-ego, and his friend Bosco wears one like it.

Pogo Rey and Bosco

Pogo Rey and Bosco

 

A few weeks pass, and I’m at another great local music event – Jam for a Cure at Marshall‘s Stuart’s Landing.  Because I’m there playing photographer, I’m in my fedora.  As I’m sitting and relaxing, a guy comes up to me and says, “I like your hat.”  He extends his hand to shake mine and says, “I’m Bosco.” I laugh and share the story of Rey’s confusion with him.  To be sure, the hat could be the only basis for confusing the two of us.

Since then I’ve become friends with Bosco, and a bit closer to Rey and some of the musicians in Blue Haze.  And my daughters have determined that when I make it big as an accodion player my stage name should be “Bosco Squeezebox,” pronounced “Bosco Squeeze” (the “box” is silent, as people would wish that mine would be).

Thinking about this now because I’m heading out tonight to hear Laditude – the band that Bosco plays in currently.  Looking forward to it.99630compress

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Faculty Lecture Thanks

annelidometer

Annelidometer

I had the honor of giving a Faculty Lecture today, discussing my research on learning in earthworms.  I am grateful to the many students who worked hard to run the worms and collect the data that led to the work that I discussed, and I was glad to see a few of those students (even past ones) in attendance.

For those who are interested, here’s a copy of the presentation, in pdf format.  It might not be fully self-explanatory, but it will come close.

I appreciate the thoughtful questions posed by my colleagues during and after the talk.  Now back to end-of-semester fun and games!

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40 Years

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Bruce Baron, Alice Powers, Tony Reiner, and me.

At the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC I ran into three people whom I’ve known for a long time. Only after the event did I realize that this marks the 40th anniversary of when I met them, a long time ago in what seemed like a different life. I thought I should write about my earliest memory of each of them.  I am struck by how old the men look compared to the woman — more remarkable considering that what binds the three guys together is that we were all her students at about the same time.

First – Alice Powers. Alice was my first psychology professor, teaching the first segment of my team-taught introductory psychology course at Bryn Mawr College. This was the segment of the course on learning – not her normal area but Dick Gonzalez was on sabbatical so the task fell to her.  I took the course at Bryn Mawr (I was a Haverford student) because at the time the two psych departments were quite distinct (at least in the eyes of the students).  We described the two this way: “Bryn Mawr is rats and cats; Haverford is nuts and sluts.”  I was way over on the science end of things, so I gravitated to the biological, learning theory end of psychology (plus my then-girlfriend was a psych major at Bryn Mawr).

Alice taught the segment very well, or at least I assume that she did.  Learning is my favorite area of psychology, and I am sure that my being partial to it came in part from Alice’s teaching and from Gonzalez’s 200-level Learning course.  Gonzalez’ course was theoretically challenging and offered my first experience of writing a detailed APA-style paper (and I’m sorry to say that I just learned that Gonzalez died last March).  Alice did (and still does) research in turtle vision and turtle learning, informing our understanding of our mammalian brain by looking at its evolutionarily distant ancestor.  I never did any research with Alice (I worked with her colleague Earl Thomas) but I have remained close to her – we get together at nearly every SfN meeting.

From Powers AS & Reiner A. (1980). A stereotaxic atlas of the forebrain and midbrain of the eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta). J Hirnforsch. 21:125-59. Powers AS, Reiner A.

From Powers AS & Reiner A. (1980). A stereotaxic atlas of the forebrain and midbrain of the eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta). J Hirnforsch. 21:125-59.
Powers AS, Reiner A.

Tony Reiner (behind Alice in the photo) was a graduate student working with Alice on turtle vision.  He has had a successful career as an anatomist at the University of Tennessee. I remember Tony showing me microscope slides of turtle brains — my first real experience with neuroanatomy.  He explained to me that brain areas really are distinct from each other, that you come to appreciate the subtle differences that constitute their boundaries.  I had no real understanding of how brain areas were organized; I knew that they had names, and I imagined very obvious differently-colored blobs of clay molded together into a brain shape.  It was Tony’s willingness to spend a few minuted (probably the whole discussion lasted 15 min at most) with a lowly undergraduate that helped me to comprehend the nature of anatomical differences in the brain.  In order to do his research Tony needed an atlas of the turtle brain.  Such an atlas did not exist, so he created one for his masters thesis (that’s my memory of the situation, anyway).

Finally, Bruce Baron was a year ahead of me at Haverford. Like me, he was interested in what was then called Physiological Psychology, and did his research with Alice, although I can’t recall the nature of his project.  Bruce was the first person to demonstrate to me how one removes the brain from a formalin-soaked rat’s head.  I remember him telling me that after you do it you can’t eat chicken for a week.  I also recall Bruce getting five grad school rejection letters before getting his first acceptance – to the University of Rochester, I think.  He lived one floor up from me in our dorm, and I recall hearing the fire doors in the corridor slamming open and closed as he ran down the hall toward the staircase to come down to tell me that he had gotten in.  He has spent a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, working at Sanofi.

It’s hard to know for sure, but it is likely that my scientific life would have been quite different had I not met these fine people.  Forty years ago…

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Working Hard on a Paper

phd092111sWhat does it mean to say that you “worked hard on a paper?”  Consider these two hypothetical students writing about the nucleus accumbens:

Sue Perfishle:

  • Spent hours online finding a handful of full-text articles with the word “accumbens” in the title.
  • Read the abstracts to find the key sentences about what was done and what was found.
  • Read the introductions to find older references about the accumbens.
  • Searched for full-text versions of these older papers.
  • Sought sentences in the various papers that seemed to have something to do with the function of the accumbens.
  • Painstakingly cobbled together a 6-page paper by cutting and pasting these sentences, re-arranging them and substituting synonyms.

or

Anne Durstuhd:

  • Read the textbook to see what it said about the accumbens.
  • Read some of the articles cited by the textbook authors to learn more about the accumbens.
  • Formulated an idea about what the accumbens might do for behavior.
  • Sought articles related to this hypothesis.
  • Read more and revised the hypothesis.
  • Sought more articles and read them.
  • Came to a conclusion about the accumbens, and wrote about it based on the new-found knowledge.

The scientific content of the two papers might be comparable, if one judged solely on the basis of number of facts per page.  The scientific quality of the second will be far better, because it reflects a thesis; the facts presented are more likely to hang together in some relevant manner.

It’s also a safe bet that Anne could tell me about the accumbens — what we know about it and what it might do for behavior — without referring to notes, articles, or the final paper. Sue would struggle to do this, perhaps being capable of repeating some of the phrases from the paper but without understanding.

Don’t be Sue; strive to be Anne.

[Note – I found a draft of this on 11/24/2014, the evening before papers are due in Neuroscience I.  Not sure why I didn’t post it two years ago when I first wrote it, but I think I ought to post it now.]

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Grad School Advice from Experts at SfN 2014

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Washington DC Convention Center

Albion’s Neuroscience Concentrators (well, some of them) attended the 2014 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC.  During the trip, students heard many lectures by senior scientists about cutting-edge science, attended cutting-edgier posters presented by younger investigators (typically grad students, post-docs, and un-tenured faculty), and networked with many other neuroscientists.  In conversations with some established neuroscientists (recent PhDs, assistant professors,
and famous full professors) over drinks or meals our students got some good advice about grad school; I summarize it here.

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Albion neuroscience students with Jim Pfaus (center).

First, all scientists regardless of their level stressed the importance of research experience for people seeking admission to PhD programs in neuroscience.  Such experience demonstrates to potential grad school mentors that a student understands what science is all about.  One established professor who routinely decides between applicants to the lab indicated that she looks for evidence of failed research attempts; students with such experience understand that science is not all glamorous and are better prepared for life as a grad student.

Some Albion alums who have gone on to PhD programs suggested that knowledge of coding is important.  They suggested that computer science courses should be  part of an undergraduate neuroscience curriculum.  Physics courses were also identified as being important.  (My take on this is that physics is important for the student interested in imaging, perhaps less so for behavioral neuroscience.  And programming is an important tool for all scientists.)

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With Sheri Mizumori (3rd from right).

Assuming that research experience is part of an applicant’s background, another respected scientist indicated that passion is critical.  He views passion as more important than grades; it’s a student’s passion that will see her through the hard days and nights of lab work, seldom for the big scientific pay-out and never for big financial reward. A student should not get a PhD as a stepping stone to what she really wants to do.  What she does on the way to getting the PhD is what she will be doing later. Grad school is a job in science that will lead to other jobs in science with more responsibilities; if what one does in grad school is not appealing, the rest of one’s career will not be appealing.

Many students hear this advice and decide that a PhD program is not for them, and that’s good. One must be certain that research is interesting, that unanswered questions are worth pursuing, that being the first (and for a while only) person in the world to know something is pretty cool, before undertaking a life of science.  I can tell you that when my student and I first found out that earthworms use the same neurotransmitter receptors for learning as do humans I was thrilled — soon the rest of the neuroscience community would know this, but for a while this new knowledge about the world was known only to those of us who did the science, and this was way cool.  If you would appreciate this first-hand experience with new information, then science is for you.

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With Arik Nagel (left), Moriel Zelikowsky (front, 2nd from left), Robert Twining (peaking over Moriel’s shoulder), and Marieke Gilmartin (front, 2nd from right).

Among the people with whom we met were Sheri Mizumori (University of Washington), Jim Pfaus (Concordia University), Marieke Gilmartin (Marquette University), and Moriel Zelikowsky (California Institute of Technology). We also met with several successful Albion alums who have gone on to graduate programs or post-baccalaureate research fellowships in neuroscience.  In addition I know that many of the students spoke with other scientists and learned from those conversations.  All-in-all I am grateful to my colleagues in neuroscience, some old friends and some new, who were willing to share their advice.  I know the students appreciated it — those who will decide to go for PhDs as well as those who will heed the advice and recognize that grad school is not the life for them.

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Current Neuroscience concentrators, with alums (A). From left: Kate Sears, Amanda Komur (A), Nicole Ferrara (A), Erik Brink, Katie Pickworth (A), Emily Stephens (A), Jeff Wilson, Ashley Glenn, Brandon Johnson.

 

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