Great Music in the Albion Area

Blues Jam & Chili Cook-Off (Sat, Jan 27 – Benefits homeless shelters)

Blues at the Bohm (usually first Monday of the month)

Jazz at Relli’s (frequently on Wednesdays)

Live music at Stirling Books (every Saturday)

Society for Neuroscience 2017

This recent meeting in Washington DC marked the 37th SfN meeting that I have attended. Since 1981 I have missed only one (2009, 

Chicago, when I was in Poland).  The meetings have changed, most notably growing in size (attendance at my first meeting – Anaheim 1977 – was 4,586; this year it was ~30,000). The quality of the science remains high, although there are always more studies presented than will ever make it into press. 

This year’s highlights for me included

Albion Alums

  • yet another get-together for Albion Neuro alums (7 alums attended, some others at the meeting were otherwise occupied),
  • opportunities for the 10 current Albion students who went to interact with various neuroscientists from elsewhere,   
  • Wilson, Anna-Rose Childress, Kathleen Childress, Alice Powers, Tony Reiner, Bill Grisham, Ettie Grauer – all at Bryn Mawr College around 1977.

    a chance to see many old friends, including my first-ever psychology professor, who is still actively examining the neuroscience of learning in turtles,

  • hearing about the history of neuroanatomical studies from Pasko Rakic, who was instrumental in much of that work, and who prefers that his photo not appear on the internet,
  • talking with the authors of the sole study at the meeting examining learning in tardigrades,
  • discussing an open-source, open-hardware solution for monitoring startle behavior,
  • hearing Demis Hassabis, founder of DeepMind, discussing his view of artificial intelligence,

    Daphna Shohamy

  • Daphna Shohamy’s talk about the neuroscience of memory and decision-making,
  • talking shop with Joe Shymanski, official SfN photographer,
  • seeing Albion alums succeeding in the field.

If you are a current Albion student interested in attending the 2018 SfN meeting contact me!

Letter to Psychology Seniors

Nick Bismack (photo by Maureen Dooley Bismack)

My friend Nick Bismack (Albion 2008) sent this letter to me this morning, and urged me to “do whatever you’d like with the letter.  If it helps even a single person then it will have served it’s purpose.”

Nick Bismack at Psych Seniors’ Party – 2008.

“… roughly 30,000 feet above Amsterdam. I’m in the bathroom because I was peeing and peeing made me think of the inefficiency of waste material and the inefficiency of waste material made me think of memory retention and memory retention made me think of education and education made me think of Albion Psychology and Albion Psychology made me think back to 8 years ago when I sat where you’re sitting and probably thought what you’re thinking.”

Nick offers insights into the world after graduation. He speaks from experience, and writes clearly, without pulling his punches. Give it a read.  (Edit: Some colleagues have suggested that the letter contains inaccuracies concerning our field. I believe that the overall message is worth sharing despite this.)

Pavlovian Society ~ 2017

Another meeting of the Pavlovian Society has come to an end; stimulating platform session organized by Pres. Mark Stanton, great posters submitted by our members, an excellent meeting all around.

Here are some thoughts for students considering pursuing science in general, or learning theory in particular.

  • This is not a cut-throat endeavor.  Senior scientists tend to criticize some views of their senior colleagues, but this is almost always done constructively. Senior scientists are very supportive of the work of the younger scientists.
  • That said, these are smart people who do not suffer fools lightly.  If your argument makes no sense or is not supported by your data they will call you on it.
  • Learning theory and neuroscience are becoming more tightly entwined.  Yes, some ask behavioral questions without regard to neural mechanisms (and I think this is a good thing), but most of the work presented at the meeting had a neural component.
  • There is still a place for clinical issues in the Pavlovian Society.  Some presentations addressed PTSD, alcoholism, amnesia, and stress.
  • Learning theory is gender-balanced. 14 of the 29 talks were given by women (it would have been 15 of 30 but illness prevented one woman from attending). People of color were somewhat under-represented.
  • The future is bright. The students and other young scientists in attendance were brilliant.



The Objectivity of Emotion

I just read “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan – I recommend it highly. However, this quote fromBotofDesire organic chemist Raphael Mechoulam (synthesizer of THC, discoverer of the first anandamide) gave me pause. “If I see my grandson rushing to meet me, I feel happy. How do I translate biochemically the objective reality of a grandson rushing toward me into the subjective change in my emotions?”

I think he has this exactly backwards. The “grandson rushing toward me” is a subjective construct of his mind, only loosely linked to the actual physical child in the external environment, who exists independently of Mechoulam. The “change in emotions” exists wholly within Mechoulam’s mind and its reality cannot be separated from that mind–in this sense I would argue that the emotion is far more real and objective than the image of the boy.

Neuroscience cannot yet tell us how any subjective experience comes about, but surely the leap from external object (the grandson) to neural representation to subjective experience must involve more distortion than the leap from neuronally-generated state (neural activity underlying emotion) to subjective experience (“I’m happy!”).

Thoughts? Comment below (I need to approve you the first time, to prevent spam).

Tardigrade Eggs

Here are photos of what I believe to be tardigrade eggs, along with a female whose eggs are visible inside of her.  I’m currently shooting a time lapse of some eggs, hoping to capture tardigrades hatching.

Three egg clumps, with gravid female crawling at bottom of frame.

Three egg clumps, with gravid female crawling at bottom of frame.


Two egg clumps.

Two egg clumps.


Egg clump.

Egg clump.


Gravid female crawling past egg clump.

Gravid female crawling past egg clump.



Eggs visible within female; eye spots and rear legs visible.



Legs visible on ventral surface; eggs visible within.



Some green ingested food visible; eggs dorsal to that. Rear legs and some other legs visible ventrally.



Clear eye spots. photo adjusted to make internal eggs stand out.



I count 5 eggs.



Maybe 6 eggs visible here; ventrally 3 legs are visible.



Green ingested matter; eggs visible dorsally. Rear leg and two other legs visible ventrally.



Facing the camera. Legs nicely visible.

Tardigrade Videos

I’ve been considering doing some learning studies with tardigrades (water bears). Part of the process is simply observing them, trying to get a handle on their general behavior, so that I can determine what best to study. Another part of the process is trying to figure out how to manipulate individual animals so that I can study them apart from their conspecifics (I’ll figure that out).

In observing, I’ve taken photos and videos. Here are some of the videos, compiled in one place for your viewing pleasure. They range from the simplistic (a few seconds of a tardigrade walking) to the more elaborate (“Miss Tardigrade’s Excellent Adventure”). Because I believe music makes things better, I have added a sound track to many — usually music provided by Underscore Orkestra. Not sure why, but their music just seems right for tardigrades.


Doing What I Can.


Science Uncensored

I am sickened by our current administration’s attempts at limiting or controlling information. Journalists were locked up and charged with felonies for covering unrest at the inauguration. Scientists have been barred from sharing their findings. Park Service employees have been barred from posting information.

We must do what we can to stop the suppression of information and to uphold our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. I’m doing what I can.  I’ve created a web page where I will publish information from scientists who have been ordered not to share. Send me info (see the page for what I need) and it will be posted.

Free Access to Science: Sci-Hub



I post with some hesitation, because I am a strong supporter of copyright and the protection of intellectual property. However, I am also a scientist who values access to information. In science knowledge revolves around “the literature,” which takes the form of published journal articles. Twenty years ago one’s access to the literature was determined by one’s proximity to a library with extensive holdings of printed material and a good inter-library loan program. Now most scientific journals have an online presence, offering near instantaneous access to their contents for subscribers or for students and professors at institutions whose libraries subscribe. Of course, one could twenty years ago and can still today request a copy of an article from the author at no cost.

Until recently, online access to the literature was easier for people at rich institutions or in first-world countries, where the pricey journal subscriptions were most likely to be purchased (an individual subscription to Science is ~$125/year; an institutional subscription to Brain Research is > $13,000/year!). Third-world scientists, or those at poorer institutions, found access more limited. Now there is Sci-Hub, a web page based in Russia billing itself “the first website in the world to provide mass & public access to research papers.” Sci-Hub, founded in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, offers access to more than 58,000,000 scientific articles at no cost to the reader, using methods that violate copyright laws in many countries.  Their justification seems to be that the articles were written by scientists for scientists, and should be accessible; the scientific work was in nearly all cases supported by public funds and should be publicly available and not purchased from publishers whose role is simply the dissemination of the material. The publishers, of course, provide an important service by vetting research; the review process helps to ensure that journals publish quality work.



Scientists, in many cases the very people whose papers are accessed in pirated form on Sci-Hub, seem to approve of what Sci-Hub offers: a poll by the journal Science found that 88% of scientists approve of the downloading of pirated papers. The high level of support for the activity might reflect the nature of science itself, which relies on shared information; it also probably reflects the fact that the scientists lose nothing as a result of the piracy (they were not paid by the journals whose copyright is being violated) and in fact probably benefit by having their work more widely read and cited.

This post was prompted by my recent experiences with Sci-Hub. The site has come through for me every time I have sought a paper in the past two weeks–far better performance than I experienced, say, a year ago. Sci-Hub has become my go-to site when I want to access a paper. It is fast, convenient, and it works. Sci-Hub was described in another article in Science as “the world’s de facto open-access research library.”

I see the wide-spread use of Sci-Hub as support of open access to scientific information, but unfortunately Sci-Hub only works because it can pirate papers from other sites. In many cases Sci-Hub gets journal articles by gaining access to the computer system of a university that has paid for subscription to the journal. Thus Sci-Hub works because others are paying. When those others no longer pay, Sci-Hub’s access will disappear. Sci-Hub should thus be viewed as a temporary measure, a tool providing a necessary service and pointing to the future, but a tool whose mode of operation is not sustainable. The more easily available Sci-Hub makes the literature, the less willing people will be to pay for subscriptions to the journals, so Sci-Hub’s sources will be gone.

I offer no solution, only hope that the future of the scientific literature is open access. Sci-Hub’s success demonstrates that this is what we want. Now it is up to scientists, publishers, and libraries to find a way to make it sustainable.

Disclaimer: I recognize that Sci-Hub violates the laws of many countries and is “pirating” information. I do not advocate these practices, but I do strongly support free access to information.

SfN 2016 ~ Thoughts & Photos

The 2016 Society for Neuroscience meeting is over. 30,000+ neuroscientists of varying ages, ethnicities, religions, genders, nationalities, and political persuasions came together in San Diego to celebrate their science. I was there with five Albion College students (two of whom presented their research); here are some of my thoughts upon returning from the meeting.2101

  • Students need to be taught how to tell people about their research appropriately.  When talking to a:
    • senior neuroscientist: “I’m examining the role of NMDA receptors in learning and memory in the earthworm using an escape learning task.”
    • fellow students: “I put earthworms in a running wheel and they learn to crawl to turn off a bright light.  Some get a drug that blocks learning in rats; if it has a similar effect in the worms this will tell us if the neural mechanisms of learning are conserved across evolution.”pb1301271
    • person sitting by you on a plane: “I study learning in earthworms to see if their brains work the same way as ours. If so, it will tell us about how memory works, and maybe someday lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s.”
  • Neuroscientists are friendly, and like to help students.Several prominent colleagues agreed to meet with my students to discuss their science and to offer advice and guidance. We had dinner with Debra Bangasser, afternoon snacks with Colin Saldanha and Steve Ramirez, and visited with Ramachandran at his lab.
  • Albion neuroscience alums rock!I was fortunate enough to see a few of them present their research, and I caught up with many others at our alumni get-together.
  • Some talks are great; others are not worth attending.
    • Including optogenetics in a behavioral study does not by itself make it a good study.
    • Speakers need to honor their time constraints.
  • My friends rock!
    • Julio Ramirez was honored as one of the founders of Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience.
    • Bruce Johnson received SfN’s Educator of the Year award.
    • Many un-acclaimed friends contribute to our knowledge and mentor fabulous students.
  • There are still many great avenues of research out there, just waiting to be explored.

Some photos from the meeting appear below.  To see all of my photos go here.









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