Rediscovering the Lure of Brain Science: Gene Stark and support for young scientists

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Rediscovering the Lure of Brain Science: Gene Stark and support for young scientists

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Rachel Donahue, Ph.D.
Gene Stark, right, with inaugural Stark Fellow Yang Wu in 2014. Image credit: Bryce Vickmark.

I was very disappointed with high school biology,” recalls Gene Stark ’68, SM ’69, EE ’70, SCD ’72. “I had a teacher who couldn’t stand the sight of blood, therefore we did no lab work. We just read the book and memorized the names for all these things.”

Despite this, Gene still had a kernel of interest in the mind and brain. “I had always been fascinated by the concept of psychology, so I took 9.00 from Hans-Lukas Teuber,” the legendary founder of the Department of Psychology, which later became Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. Everybody said it was an easy B, but a tough A. So I said, I’m going for the tough A.”

The course was indeed memorable, but Gene’s interests led him in another direction. He went on to earn a BS, MS, and SciD In Electrical Engineering, spending one week shy of eight years at MIT. He went on to a long tenure as a business liaison, coordinating partnerships and helping transfer technology for commercialization, at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Gene is now Corporate Secretary for Arlington Industries in Scranton, Penn., an industry leader in the development of unique and innovative electrical and communications products.

Support for students

A serendipitous invitation to connect with BCS gave Gene a new way to engage with his interest in brain science. An invitation to BCS’s 2013 “Brains on Brains” symposium coincided with business travel, and Gene happily accepted an invitation to the day-long event featuring faculty talks and breakout sessions.

“It was a real mind opener, very interesting. I spoke with [department head] Jim DiCarlo and other faculty at the luncheon, and immediately asked, ‘what do you need?’

I heard about the need for graduate student support and committed to an annual fellowship the next day.”

A few years later, he endowed a fellowship. “In part it’s the people, in part it’s the work. You have brilliant people working on the unknown, and it’s so cool to meet graduate students.” Gene returns to campus often, and has opportunities to meet with his fellows, learn about their research, and hear updates on project progress. Every year, those who support graduate fellowships and research are also invited to an annual Champions of the Brain Fellows celebration.

The Stark graduate fellowship has provided support to eight students so far; the impact of this gift on helping train the next generation of scientists and innovators will be felt for many years to come.

Improving the pipeline

More recently, Gene has become an early supporter of the BCS Research Scholars Program, which was created in 2017 to provide recent college graduates from under-represented groups with additional research and academic training in neuroscience in order to prepare them for the most competitive PhD programs, including BCS’s. The program is small but successful: of the six students who have completed it, four are now in doctoral programs at MIT, Princeton, and Stanford. Building on this foundation, the aim is now to enlarge the program to ten students a year.

“I am so glad to hear about its expansion. It’s about helping those who are hardworking, smart, and just need a little extra time and experience to get into a great graduate school,” says Gene, who recognizes that improving access to and equity in the sciences will also bring an important diversity of experiences and perspectives to research.

Gene enjoys his special connections to the research happening in BCS—not just for the science, but also because he gets to know students, “what they’re doing and why and where they want to take the work in the future. Each one is different. Each one has a compelling story and
is doing compelling research under outstanding faculty.”

By focusing his support on scientists in the earliest stages of their careers, Gene has shown his commitment to the future. “I know it may take 10 or 20 years to, let’s say, produce a Nobel Prize winner, but it’s a long-term investment to fix the pipeline.

“I won’t live to see many breakthroughs, but in the future it will happen and it’s very important.”