In the life cycle of an academic research scientist, developmental maturation usually consists of achieving a secure tenured position, establishing a productive lab, and becoming a respected member of the scientific community. Once this is achieved, most academic researchers busy themselves with worrying about their next grant application or find themselves drawn into the inevitable quagmire that comes with local university politics. However, some researchers, like Dr. Bruce McEwen, realize that the scientific cycle of life is not self-contained, indeed it depends upon society and society’s perception of science to continue. Dr. McEwen is a vocal proponent of a scientist’s responsibility to teach about science, not just to the graduate students in their labs, but to society at large and especially to its children.
Dr. McEwen, a professor at Rockefeller University in New York, sees the big picture. In addition to establishing a very successful lab that examines the mechanisms by which stress and sex hormones effect brain function and gene expression, Dr. McEwen spends a significant amount of his scientific life promoting science. Realizing that the work done in research labs has meaning beyond academic walls, Dr. McEwen has served as the leader of a MacArthur Foundation project, examining societal trends in health, and how these trends are effected by stress, socioeconomic status, and education. He has also spearheaded national education movements to promote awareness of the brain and neuroscience. His efforts have resulted in national recognition of Brain Awareness Week, a one-week promotion of brain-related activities in schools and communities throughout the country. This year’s brain week will take place March 13-20.
BC: Can you tell me about your background? Where did you grow up?
BM: I grew up in Ann Arbor Michigan, the son of an English professor at the University of Michigan. I went to Oberlin College where I majored in Chemistry, and then came as a young midwestern kid to Rockefeller University in 1959 to do Ph.D. research. I finished my Ph.D. in 1964, working in the laboratory of Alfred Mirsky and Vincent Allfrey. Allfrey and Mirsky were pioneers in the early stages of molecular biology and were interested in the regulation of how genes are expressed via protein-DNA interactions. I actually worked on how cell nuclei get energy to make nucleic acids. I then moved on to a post doc in Gothenburg Sweden working on brain specific proteins and got my first taste of neurobiology. I then moved to Minnesota, like a good Swede, and after just a half a year in the department of Zoology at the University of Minnesota, I moved back to Rockefeller to join the laboratory of the psychologist, Neil Miller, who was moving there from Yale. My return to Rockefeller was entirely unexpected, but Miller needed a biochemist and made an offer that was hard to pass up! I got started working on hormones because they seemed to be relevant to behavior, and also to what I was interested in, which was the regulation of gene expression in the brain. That is what I’ve been doing ever since.
BC: What was your first published paper?
BM: It was while I was still an undergraduate. It was on the role of an obscure substance called acetlycarnitine in muscle fatty acid oxidation. I did this at the University of Michigan with Irving Fritz, and it was published in Science in 1958. It turned me on to biomedical research.
BC: What event drew you into science?
BM: I had a high school physical science teacher named Larry Conray who was an outstanding teacher, an absolute delight. He turned a whole bunch of us students on to science. That was in ninth grade. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been interested in Brain Awareness Week and science outreach.
BC: Can you tell me a little about your involvement in Brain Awareness Week?
BM: Actually, I became involved in this project when I was the incoming president elect for the Society for Neuroscience. The Council wanted to do something in relation to the idea put forth by the Dana Foundation for a brain awareness week, as a public relations activity that might help increase funding for research. I suggested it would be a good idea for the Society to turn this into a grassroots effort that would engage the Society for Neuroscience Chapters, which were in some cases rather dormant. And it would allow grassroots scientists who were interested in communicating with their congressman, local teachers, and local advocacy groups, to become acquainted with these people and become part of a national effort. So I became the head of the steering committee ant that’s where I’ve remained ever since. We have collaborated with the Dana Foundation that runs the BAW nationally.
Brain Awareness Week has become a very important activity for the Society for Neuroscience because it really energizes the chapters and has fostered a lot of grassroots activity. In many cases, BAW sparks activities that go on through out the year. It involves a certain amount of interactions with politicians and communication with different advocacy groups for different diseases. I’m particularly proud of the outreach activities and the implications for science education.
BC: Why do you think it is important that people know about neuroscience?
BM: I think there are several different levels. First, the brain is certainly one of the most wonderful, mysterious, still-largely-unexplored, and challenging organs of the body and certainly the most important one for understanding a whole host of issues ranging from memory to violence to depression to the basis for psychosomatic diseases. Secondly, regarding science in general, it’s very important to educate the public because they support research through taxes, but also because they have to make decisions everyday that are related to their own health and their own behavior.
Science education has been rather abysmal except at the higher levels. I mean while we get some brilliant people to go into science, at the same time we have one of the lowest science literacy rates in the world. Bruce Alberts at the National Academy of Sciences is very concerned about this. The outreach activities in Brain Awareness week are not just intended to propagandize about the brain and its importance, but are part of a whole process to make people more aware of science, to encourage people to study it and improve the quality of teaching of every science discipline so that the population is better educated and more “science literate”.
BC: Do you think the brain is a good lead into science?
BM: I think it is. I think it’s very good because it connects to so many systems in the body and so many biological processes.
BC: If there was one area of science that you could spotlight for the public what would it be?
BM: There is wonderful progress at all levels of biology, whether we are talking about molecules or nerve cells or cognitive function and behavior. I think the most important thing is to begin to integrate some of this, or, as I like to say, to “put the body back together again”. That’s the main message I have, to think about how systems relate to one another. So it’s sort of a plea to come back to physiology as a way of looking at the body and not just think about the individual systems and processes that scientists love to work on and try to dissect.
We must also remember that the biggest problems for the human race in the future are those associated with our own behavior and misbehavior, and the impact of the social and physical environment on our bodies and brains. One example is the impact of socioeconomic status on physical and mental health. Genes are important, but so is the environment in regulating how genes are expressed. Obviously, I think the regulation of gene expression is extraordinarily important but I would look at it not just from the context of proteins binding to DNA and nucleosome unfolding. I look at it in terms of organ systems and biological processes. The unfolding of an individual personality over a lifetime – how is that programmed and how does it change? One of the big challenges in behavioral science and in the rest of medical science is how reversible some of the diseases are, and the processes that we try to deal with. I think at present we have a much more optimistic view of the plasticity of the brain and the body at all stages of life than we did before. Even things like learning disabilities are not necessarily untreatable.
BC: Where do you think we will be in the future with respect to the classroom? Do you think our teaching will change in the next couple of years based on what we have figured out about the brain?
BM: That is, providing we can communicate the information! One of my big concerns is that our teaching materials are not as good as they could be. If you look at available textbooks for high school students, many of them are abysmal. Some are pretty good scientifically but are still way out of date, at least in how they present fields of inquiry. To help teachers, you have to help them find the best textbook in terms of having the least mistakes, and the best basic information. Then help them supplement their material so they can present a more integrated view of science. For example I’ve seen in textbooks where they talk about psychology and behavior, but they don’t talk about the brain. All they say about the brain is it has a motor system and sensory system. They talk about drug abuse, and again they are not really talking about the brain. Also, they are separating brain function from the rest of the body’s function. For example, nothing is said about hormones and, say, stress and its physiological effects. It’s very disappointing. How can you ever expect to communicate any of the wonderment about how the brain really works if people are 20 to 30 years out of date in the way we think about it? So we have a long way to go in translating the kind of appreciation a basic neuroscientist has for the level of an elementary school, middle school, or high school classroom.
BC: Have you seen any textbooks that you would recommend?
BM: There is a recent textbook called Biology by Campbell. A group of teachers discussed it here in our outreach program. It is a very attractive and nicely put-together book and fairly sophisticated. But it also compartmentalizes biology in a way that is out of date. For example, it talks about animal behavior in terms of ethology and, in a way that reminds me of the way it was 30 years ago when I started out. The author did a very decent job, but he missed so many chances: for example, to talk about how an animal sees or hears from the standpoint of the physics of sound and light, and then how this information is processed by the eye or ear and then by the nervous system, how it leads to learning and then results in behavior. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the need to integrate information and get students to tie together their knowledge of all aspects of science. Supplementary materials could help teachers make optimal use of such a text and teach the connections between different aspects of science.
BC: What books are you reading right now?
BM: I just discovered what, for me, is a new author, Michael McGarrity, who writes about the Southwest, like Tony Hillerman, who is one of my all time favorite authors. I just finished reading Mexican Hat by McGarrity and am currently reading another book of his, called Serpent Gate.
Besides mysteries and other fiction, I read some non-fiction. There is a book called Faster by James Gleick. He discusses the advances in technology, like fax, email and cell phones and how the pace of life is going faster and faster. The paradox is that the devices that were supposed to simplify our lives have actually made our lives speed up almost to the point of being unbearable. This book relates to my interest in stress, and, frankly, we do not yet know what the faster pace of life is doing to our health.
I also just read a book by Betty Hart and Todd Risley called Meaningful Differences, about how parental behavior and verbal skill influences their children’s vocabulary and verbal skill! A truly disturbing and masterful study!
I am also reading a book, Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. It describes how companies can make profits by doing things that are ecologically sound. For example there is a company that leases carpet. When the carpet is worn out they take it back and resurface it instead of leaving you to throw it out. There are many examples this book has come up with that illustrate how companies, with imagination and skill, can make money doing things that don’t contaminate our environment and save energy.