A Conversation With Robert Sapolsky
I first met Robert Sapolsky years ago at a research conference. My first impression was that he was quiet… too quiet. In a crowded hotel lobby with hundreds of scientists busily jabbering about themselves and their research, he seemed almost transparent. He didn’t talk much, took up very little personal space and seemed comfortable and content to just be there and listen to what was going on around him. I chalked him up as yet another scientific introvert. Let’s face it, the sad but true fact is some of us go into science to avoid the messy and unpredictable reality that is human interaction.
On the next day of the conference, Dr. Sapolsky gave a talk, and, as introversion and public speaking are usually at opposite ends of the personality spectrum, I arrived expecting a strained half-hour lecture. I was shocked — it was as if somebody had switched Sapolsky’s on me during the night. He appeared to be two feet taller than the day before — he was engaging, dynamic, extroverted, lighthearted, and passionate about his work. He spoke of the complexities of hippocampal neuronal death with such ease that even the bellboys at the hotel understood. Dr. Sapolsky covers a wide spectrum.
This is a neuroscientist who runs a lab of about 20 people investigating causes for neuronal cell death in the brain — in particular, how stress and the related stress hormones affect a neuron’s ability to survive after trauma. He is a MacArthur fellow, and a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Stanford University, and he has an outstanding reputation as a dynamic teacher and lecturer. In addition, he is also an accomplished writer and communicator of science to non-scientists. His books on the mechanism of neuronal death, stress, and stress related diseases, and the “biology of the human predicament” are witty and informative.
Dr. Sapolsky can also be found on the grasslands of Kenya, where he has established a field research program observing baboon behavior for over 20 years. His field studies are composed of extensive behavioral observation combined with physiological measurements of stress. In order to obtain these measurements, Dr. Sapolsky is said to be a reputable shot with a blowdart. I’d like to think that it was his training in techniques of silent behavioral observation that I encountered at our first meeting (and I have been harboring secret fantasies of firing blowdarts at scientists during conventions ever since).
I recently had a chance to talk with him again.
Could you explain your current research?
There are three broad areas:
First, we have known for 50 to 60 years that stress can do bad things to blood pressure, sex life, and the immune system. It turns out that stress hormones can also damage the nervous system — in particular, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory, which may have something to do with why some of us go into old age with more intact memories than others. I am trying to understand, on a cellular level, how one class of hormones released during stress can damage neurons, and what that has to do with which of us have lots of brain damage after a stroke or seizure, or who succumbs to Alzheimer’s.
The second area is to take that knowledge and try to figure out ways to actively save the neuron after a stroke or seizure using gene therapy techniques to identify genes that might be protective. We are attempting to deliver genes into neurons around the time of crisis to see if we can actually save a neuron.
The third area includes the fieldwork I’m doing. I am looking at a population of wild baboons living out in Kenya with a very complex and often very socially stressful world. I am basically asking what does social rank and personality have to do with who gets the stress-related diseases? I am looking at neuronal stress related disease, and not just in the brain, but stress damage in virtually any organ of the body. And I am looking at an overwhelmingly important fact: some of us are a lot more vulnerable to stress related disease than others.
BC: Where were you born?
RS: New York City. I lived there until college, then went to Harvard. I was back in New York for graduate school at Rockefeller, then I went to the Salk institute in San Diego for a post doc, then here at Stanford ever since.
BC: At what point did you become interested in science?
RS: A lot of people who do any aspect of fieldwork have parents who were researchers in the field, so they grew up in the field. I grew up in an incredible urban setting, and somewhere in there discovered the Natural History Museum of New York and decided I wanted to live in there. I was initially completely taken with paleontology. By about ten or twelve I decided I was more interested in living primates.
In high school I took Swahili because I knew I would be going to Africa at some point. I was very focused on that and it wasn’t until college, and somewhat off handedly, that I took a neuroscience course and decided that I was more interested in the neurobiological basis of behavior. So I started shifting from pure field behavior to brain and behavior and I started working in labs. But the lab work has moved from brain and behavior, to straight brain, to neurological diseases. So I’ve gotten very far from my behavioral roots.
BC: And are you still spending four months a year in Kenya?
RS: No. I just got back a week and a half ago. Last season was my 21st year there. This year’s season was 20 days. I can’t really pick up and disappear for months at a time.
BC: How has your work there changed now that you have 20 days to observe what you then had four months to observe?
RS: I don’t do any behavioral work anymore. I have Kenyan guys out there full time collecting behavioral data. I just do the darting physiology experiments. It’s very different. I don’t know the animals particularly well anymore. It’s very different spending 3 to 4 months of behavioral observation, and then do a darting day. Where as now you’re there and have to dart two animals a day for the next six days. It has a much more traumatic quality to it.
BC: How many kids do you have?
RS: Benjamin is two and a half and Rachel is six months. They are not ready to go out to Kenya with me yet. My wife went out from 1988 to 1996. She was a zoologist originally. We will go back out there at some point fairly soon.
BC: Are you planning on teaching your children how to blowdart?
RS: Absolutely. Of course.
BC: At what age do you start blowdart training?
RS: Not clear, I’ll have to do some studies on lung capacity and see at what age you can childproof a blowgun, so that you can’t internally inhale the dart.
BC: Who were your greatest mentors?
RS: Of people I’ve actually dealt with, rather than idealized role models, overwhelmingly, the main person is an anthropologist/physician named Melvin Konnor who used to be the chairman of anthropology at Emory University. This is a biological anthropologist who also has a MD who is a wonderful writer. He wrote a fabulous book in the early 1980’s called The Tangled Wing. It’s about biological constraints on the human spirit, which is a wonderful introduction to brain and behavior. He is an incredibly smart, synthetic, interdisciplinary guy who was my advisor in college and remains a major mentor.
BC: If you could have any tool that doesn’t exist right now to further your research, what would it be?
RS: Top of the wish list would be a means to non-invasively introduce gene carrying vectors so that you could blanket a large part of the nervous system — instead of the current situation where you’ve got to micro-inject stereotaxically into one of the areas and that’s your entire area of study. If there were a way of relatively painlessly “spritzing” something up somebody’s nose, or an eye rinse, or whatever, to do your gene therapy to affect the nervous system, we would be ready for the clinic. It would be a blast.
BC: Given what you have available right now, what impact do you think your research will have on the world at large in the next ten years?
RS: To have more and more clinicians careful not to over-prescribe cortico-steroids, and for those clinicians to be conscious of the neurological side effects. That’s not going to cure a disease, but it might rein in the side effects of a hell of a lot of clinical medicine.
As for gene therapy, I would be incredibly pleased if in ten years we were getting ready for clinical testing. I would not be at all surprised if not, but it would be fabulous.
BC: The process of understanding a new medical discovery usually goes from the lab to medical clinicians to understanding by the general public. How do you feel about your position in that spectrum?
RS: From an intellectual standpoint the lab is preferable because it’s an infinitely cleaner system. It’s horrifying how hard it is to do a clinical study that actually tells you anything.
Emotionally it’s mixed. Now and then it would be nice to see the face of the one person who you saved thanks to a breakthrough. Of necessity, there will not be many Jonah Salks ever again who can wipe out a disease with a single finding.
BC: When you encounter something in life that is immediately too complicated to understand, what is your response?
RS: For the most part, not so much a sense of frustration as a sense of hang on. Science doesn’t explain everything, but depending on the priorities it could provide significant insight into anything, and if this “something” I encounter is one of those “anythings,” there will be more information.
BC: Do you have any interests outside the lab?
RS: Tons — none of which I have any time for. Not being an absentee father is something that weighs on me. Given the super mom scenario there is certainly a super dad expectation, and it’s pretty damn hard. I used to be a very serious pianist. My first paycheck went to getting a piano for my lab, and somehow my lab has had a tradition of getting good pianists in here. But I don’t have time to play anymore. I used to perform in college, but obviously I don’t have time for that anymore.
BC: What was your first teaching experience?
RS: I actually started as a teaching assistant in high school. It was an American history class — cultural history. I wound up helping this guy write a textbook during the summers. I was very into that.
If you’re basically a somewhat reclusive person, lecturing is this very artificially constrained safe setting in which you can be experimentally quite extroverted. It’s very good in that regard, so you can be far more expressive, and far more opinionated and far more animated than you would be otherwise. It has always been very appealing.
BC: What books are you reading right now both scientific and non-science?
RS: There is a book here on the floor that I am going to start this weekend called Ants at Work, which a colleague across the hall (Deborah Gordon) just published last week. The book looks at ant social behavior from a game theory level. Why is it that ant colonies make enormous amounts of sense, whereas if you look at any given ant it makes no sense whatsoever? This definitely is a metaphor for how the nervous system wires. I’m looking foreword to reading that.
When I was in Kenya I was reading Jorges Luis Borges, an Argentine short story writer, who is amazing. I’m reading a collected book of all his fiction. The next book I’m reading is this book by John Allman called Evolving Brains. He’s a guy from Cal Tech, a neuroanatomist/anthropologist who’s gotten great reviews on this book on brain evolution across species. Those are my current books.
BC: Any new book coming out?
RS: Actually I just finished one in Kenya last week. Which is a collection of Kenya stories from 20 years.