Graduate Students in Their Own Words, Then and Now

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Graduate Students in Their Own Words, Then and Now


BCS Communications

In 1965, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences graduated its first four Ph.D. students.  Whitman Richards, Donald Pfaff, Gerald Wasserman, and Joseph Mendelson went on to have successful careers in academia, and were interviewed in 2005 about their experiences both at the department and since their graduation.  In 2015, as the department celebrates 50 years, we interviewed four current graduate students about their science, their experiences, and their career goals.  The faces may have changed, but the dedication to cutting edge research and scientific discovery that is a hallmark of the department’s legacy remains the same.

Reprint from BCS News 2005

In 1965, the MIT Department of Psychology awarded doctoral degrees to its first four graduates. BCS News recently asked the members of this first class to reflect on their time with the Department as well as where their careers led them after MIT.

In the 1960’s, with the advent of accessible computer technology, the development of information theory, and the single electrode, there was renewed excitement about prospects for modeling and understanding mind and brain. Informal discussions with Vannevar Bush convinced me to change careers and to restart from scratch, so I could join this new wave. After meeting Teuber, I knew MIT was a near-perfect fit. Teuber’s charisma and broad vision for a new psychol­ogy was a powerful draw, as well as his own research interests as reflected in the Perception chapter he wrote for Field’s Handbook of Physiology. With MIT’s prestige and resources, plus the flexibility of the new program, there was a unique opportunity for a non-traditional grounding in a discipline otherwise mired in tradition. Individuals of special interest to me at the outset were Teuber and his young “fam­ily” of colleagues – especially Wayne Wickelgren and Dave Green, as well as the many neighboring luminaries in RLE and EECS. I never looked back!



I took a risk, giving up acceptances at Harvard and elsewhere, to come to MIT because (1) I was impressed with Professor Teuber’s plans for uniting the study of CNS mecha­nisms with behavior; (2) his new department was flexible enough that I could cross-register at Harvard Med for CNS and endocrine physiol­ogy courses; and (3) the professors would let me help shape my own academic program.

The department was brilliant, with Teuber, Altman, Ron Melzack, John Swets, etc., though we rattled around Building 20 for a year before moving to a new building. I joined Joe Altman’s lab, impressed by his histochemical techniques that com­bined high spatial resolution with great chemical specificity.

Coming to MIT was my best professional decision because I was allowed to supplement the Department’s training with the Harvard Med courses plus courses in the Electrical Engineering depart­ment (Michael Dertouzos, finite state automata theory, referred to in my latest book, from Harvard), and the Biology department (e.g., Pat Wall and Jerry Lettvin). Joe Altman’s stan­dards of scientific craftsmanship and novelty are with me still.

I feel lucky when it comes to my career path. I went to Rockefeller expecting to stay for a two-year NSF postdoc. However, because my results at MIT (discovering hormone receptors in the brain) brought some attention, I was promoted rapidly at the Rockefeller. I was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1992), and to the National Academy of Sciences (1994). From my current outside view: BCS still looks terrific. For work related to my interests, Earl Miller is famous and Nancy Kanwisher is carrying a high profile. I admire the BCS program and would choose it again in a trice.

These days the Pfaff lab at Rockefeller is using new molecular techniques to analyze: 1) how the mammalian brain manages specific natural behaviors such as sex, fear, and aggression; and 2) hormonal and genetic influences on general­ized brain arousal. While some of this work can be done in nerve cell lines, it is also necessary to study nerve cells in their normal synaptic context to see how, in the governance of behavior, the brain’s special con­nectivity interacts with the types of molecular mechanisms seen in other tissues.

The new department at MIT was attractive because Luke Teuber was going to be its first Head and he had the force of gravity. It turned out to be a very exciting place to be because everything was being done de novo and Luke was brim­ful of ideas about the right way to build a community of scholars, a phrase he used as he pursued his ultimate goals. I particularly treasure the memories of the regular Friday evening post-colloquium gatherings that he and Marianne hosted in their Arlington home. Everything was open for discussion and everything was vigorously discussed. In due course, Luke would often start a schauspiel which nominally presented intriguing aspects of the behavior of the brain-injured patients he had examined but actually gave him an opportunity to display his remarkable ability as a performer. The latter included an adequate supply of impish grins and grand eyebrow levitations. This was heady stuff for a provincial kid from Flatbush. Above all, Luke treasured wit and the free play of the intellect. And his spirit infected the whole department. Of course, younger peo­ple may look at a serious photo of my research setup then and, focus­ing on the facial expression and the tie being worn, find it hard to believe that there was any free play in those days. But Luke had the gift of seeing through surface appearances. The department he founded has inherited that penetrating characteristic, which has contributed to its eminence. Those of us who were privileged to train at MIT particularly benefited from Luke’s way of treating students as friends and colleagues and I have passed this tradition on to my own students.

I left MIT for a postdoctoral posi­tion at the NIH with Mike Fuortes. Subsequently, I joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and later was attracted to Purdue University where I am currently a Professor of Psychobiology. Most of my research has addressed Jerry Lettvin’s question (what the eye really says to the brain) by examining the temporal properties of visual signals in the eye of the horseshoe crab. Recently, I took up the complemen­tary question by examining the role of the neuromodulators released into this eye by efferents from the crab’s brain. My group found that they can either accelerate (Substance P) or retard (Octopamine) the timing of photoreceptor potentials. The impli­cations of these characteristics for selective attention and change blind­ness make their prevalence in other visual systems a current concern.

During my senior year at McGill University my mentor, Prof. Dalbir Bindra, suggested that I pursue grad­uate studies at MIT. He had heard from his friend, Prof. Davis Howes, who was on the faculty of MIT, that a psychology department was in formation. When I visited MIT during one of Prof. Teuber’s visits from NYU, it became clear to me that this was an unusual and unique opportunity. Prof. Teuber decided to accept four students into a non-existent graduate program in psychology. The four, Don, Jerry, Whitman, and myself, were to be at the mercy of 17 faculty, but we were actually treated more like col­leagues than like students, and given offices and permitted to cultivate our independent research interests. Rather than being forced to choose to work on a faculty member’s research project, Jerry and I were allowed to go off in pursuit of our own personal research interests, which did not match those of any of the faculty. We were generously supported by the faculty and given maximum free­dom in our research. In addition, my approach to psychological problems, developed under Professors Hebb and Bindra at McGill, was a perfect match for that of Prof. Teuber, who also served as a magnet, attracting all the great minds in biopsychology to visit and give seminars and colloquia.

In 1965, I left MIT. for the University of Michigan to study as a postdoc with Steve Glickman and Jim Olds (arranged by Prof. Helen Mahut at MIT). This was followed by four years at Rutgers University and 26 years at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. I retired from the university in 1997 and, since then, have been living in Jerusalem, surrounded by my seven children and dozen (at last count) grandchildren. Because of the lack of the types of schools I wanted for my children in Kansas, I had already moved my family to Jerusalem in 1978 and commuted for the next 20 years. In the summer of 1969, I even started the first research program in biopsychology at the Weizman Institute of Science, which is still going today. In 1970, I turned down an offer from an Israeli University.

My retirement from Kansas brought a career change and my current title is Kosher Food Inspector. As such I conduct kosher inspections of kosher-certified food-production fac­tories, most of which are in Morocco, Tunisia, and Bulgaria, but I have also done inspections in half-a-dozen other countries, including a two-month stint in China where I inspect­ed about 30 of the 600 facilities which are kosher certified. Most of the time, however, I am in Jerusalem, living in an apartment which overlooks the whole of the central city and, on a clear day, I can see from my win­dow the mountains of Moab rising on the far side of the Dead Sea.

50 Years later: graduate students in 2015

BEN DEEN, 6th year graduate student
Undergraduate: Yale University
I am a neuroscientist motivated by cognitive science questions. While my main interest is in how the brain works, and how it achieves various computations, I anchor my research in the questions from cognitive science, focusing on two broad thrusts: 1) How do we make abstract inferences about people’s thoughts and intentions based on their face and body language, vocalizations, and other social cues? The translation of concrete perceptual inputs such as these into high-level social properties is a fascinating but difficult problem.  2) There are regions in the adult brain dedicated to specific cognitive and perceptual processes, including visual regions that process specific categories of input, such as faces. How do these regions (and the corresponding processes) develop? Are we hardwired to have these regions, or do we have them because (e.g.) we see faces all the time? 

I’ve tried to discover the answer to this second set of questions through the study of infant development using functional MRI. fMRI is very sensitive to head motion, which has been a big challenge with babies. In order to get sufficient high-quality data, I’ve run many, many scans of babies over the last few years.  I then worked to develop sophisticated data analysis techniques to extract a meaningful signal from this noisy data. We found that to a good extent infants do have the category-sensitive visual regions that adults have, including regions preferring faces to other types of input. It was very exciting because it was not at all clear that this would be the case – many scientists still consider the cortex of infants to be largely a blank slate. We were able to ask a broad and deep question and get a satisfying answer. 

My research interests lie at the intersection of the Saxe and Kanwisher laboratories. While I applied to a few places outside of MIT for graduate school, I was very excited about their work. I heard wonderful things about both Nancy Kanwisher and Rebecca Saxe before I arrived at MIT, which have been borne out by my personal experiences in their labs. In addition to their scientific excellence, they are great people, excellent advisors, and are researching fascinating questions. 

My advice to new graduate students, or potential grad students, would be to think very carefully about your research question. It’s probably the most important thing you will address in grad school, and relates to everything else, from how you will spend your days to whom you choose as your advisor.  Get a broad sense of what is available and find what motivates you the most.  Graduate school is an incredible amount of work, and you need to pick something that will motivate you to work hard and provide opportunity for discovery, both personal and scientific.

RACHEL MAGID, 2nd year graduate student
Wellesley College
Magid with Remy Scott. Image courtesy of Sarah Saab.
My interest in cognitive science first manifested itself as a passion for learning foreign languages, in my case French and American Sign Language. It struck me was that although it was possible to learn foreign languages as a young adolescent, I had done something seemingly even more remarkable—learned a first language—as a young child without being explicitly taught. Moreover, I’m not special at all for having done this.

As children, we toddle around, taking in the linguistic evidence from adults around us, making mappings between words and what they describe, and inferring hidden structure in the sentences spoken around us. But learning language is far from our only achievement. We spend our childhoods, which are elongated compared to those of other mammals, accomplishing many extraordinary achievements. We transition from beings who needed round-the-clock care to the competent adults— adults with our own specific set of skills and values. And we’ve each chosen which endeavors to pursue to make use of our particular skills and values. How does this happen? My main research interests lie in what we need to know about ourselves, as well as how we learn it, to allow that to unfold.

While I considered a more traditional psychology department for graduate school, where there might be an entire sub-area of research on child development, I decided to study and train at MIT because I feel a deep intellectual connection to this department. It is unlikely I would have taken the classes I have elsewhere, including a systems neuroscience class and a computational cognitive science class. These courses, as well as interactions with my fellow graduate students studying diverse areas of neuroscience and cognitive science, have greatly enriched my thinking and learning.

I have a particularly salient memory from graduate interview day, where a subset of the faculty gave “lightning” talks, presenting highlights of recent cutting edge work from their labs. Sitting in Singleton Auditorium listening to these talks, I felt like I was so close to the edge of knowledge, hearing from people who are making discoveries almost daily, often in collaboration with their graduate students. This gave me a deeper appreciation for the groundbreaking contributions of those in this department. This is one of the first places where people started studying the mind and brain in tandem. The department does a fantastic job of enabling us, as students, to drive this research confluence, and develop as scientists, mentors, and members of a global-community engaged in the pursuit of a better understanding of what’s going on in each and every of our heads. 

After I have completed my PhD, I would love to be a professor and have a lab that studies cognitive development.  Most PhDs in cognitive science complete some postdoctoral work after finishing graduate studies, and look forward to exploring that.

RISHI RAJALINGHAM, 4th year graduate student
Undergraduate: McGill University
Masters: McGill University
Neuroscience is something that really wasn’t on my radar as a child.  My dad is a mechanical engineer who encouraged me in my love of math - I thought I was going to be an astrophysicist. And while I love music and writing and considered both of those options, for practical reasons, I became an engineer. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school and was debating what direction to choose l when I took a graduate level neuroprosthetics class. The professor in that class introduced me to neuroscience and became a mentor that I still value today.

Neuroprosthetics proved to be an incredibly engaging field.  It’s the meeting place between science and engineering, and is one of the ways we can process our understanding of the brain and use it for real applications. A great example is the cochlear implant, which, after implantation, becomes an interface for those who can’t hear, allowing them to process sound for the first time. We might also be able to take our understanding of motor control and even higher level things, like the desire or intent to move and use that information to move artificial limbs. 

The idea of basic science translating to applications like these is very important to me.  I enjoy research and science for the sake of itself, but keeping potential applications in mind as I go about my day drives me.

My current research asks whether we can stimulate the brain and change someone’s visual perception, and if so, where, and what are the codes, the spatial patterns, and the temporal patterns?  We had an experiment recently that showed if you inhibit certain parts of the brain, the test subject was completely unable to distinguish genders. Scientifically it was just a fantastic moment, showing a causal effect between the brain tissue we inhibited and behavior.  It was by far one of the best days I have ever had in lab. What if, through basic research experiments like these, it was possible to build a foundation that could eventually enable the creation of a device like the cochlear implant for people who are blind?

One of the best things about MIT is the cutting edge level of research we are exposed to. It’s very exciting to be involved with such rigorous, cutting edge science. People are developing new tools right here in the building that I am able to use almost immediately in my experiments.  Every day, you know that something is happening here that is not happening anywhere else. It’s incredibly invigorating, and something that I hope I contribute to in my own way.

Undergraduate: Boston University
When I was going into college I had no idea what I wanted to do. I loved everything from biochemistry and music to Shakespeare, and I wasn’t sure if it was possible to combine these things. My sophomore year I was working in a lab and a piece of equipment broke, so I had to go to another lab to use their equipment. I show up there, and using the piece of equipment was the girl I had a crush on all sophomore year. I ask her how to use the equipment, we made small talk about our interests, and she pointed me in the direction of a professor who within a year’s time became the director of Boston University’s undergraduate neuroscience program. During that initial meeting with him, it clicked that by studying the most multidisciplinary organ you inadvertently get access to everything. Neuroscience study seemed like a natural fit for my broad interests.

At the end of college, I started thinking about applying for grad schools. For me, acceptance at MIT was the ultimate dream, but maybe a stretch.  I was nervous about applying, because I was a B student in high school, and a B and A student in college.  And then I did, and met everyone through interviews and there was a palpable synergy. I knew it was the place I could do all of the research in learning in memory that I wanted to because half the building was dedicated to it.

The research question interesting me at the moment is whether or not there is there a way to turn memory into an anti-depressant. Right now, depression and anxiety are usually treated with drugs that flood the brain with serotonin.  As helpful as these drugs can be, serotonin has many other effects on the brain outside of helping with these disorders and may not be the best way to treat them long term. Instead, why not go in and hijack the internal machinery of the brain that we know can produce feelings of warmth, and positivity, and turn it on?  I want to be able to activate positive memories when people are going through an anxiety attack or depressive state, bridging the fields of memory and psychiatric disorders to come up with an effective, less invasive treatment, and to understand more clearly what exactly memory is and how it works.

Research is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are, you have to work hard. You have to work hard to figure stuff out. On top of that, you have to learn to roll with the punches.  My dad came from El Salvador in the late 70s to get away from the civil war and to give me, my brother, sister and mom a fighting chance to have a great future.  My dad’s Mr. Optimism.  He’s unbreakable in every way and his attitude rubbed off on me.  He likes to say “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and how.”  That’s definitely something that is both of my parent’s mottos – get your hands dirty, solve one thing at a time, and over time that amounts to a successful career or a successful life. 

Steve graduated from MIT in October 2015, and is now a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard.