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Nurturing the ideas of post-doc students


Coincidences that influenced my work
Eric Kandel Scientist
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When I look back on my work in Aplysia, I'm struck with the coincidence of several factors. One is that naiveté is not necessarily a great limiting step. That it's not necessarily an enormous handicap. If you're willing to educate yourself and dive deeply into the subject. That position was influenced by what I learned at Harvard. In history and literature, one would ask you to go out over a three-week period and write an essay on Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Freud. Now you would think this would be the most preposterous thing in the world, and it is on some level of preposterous. But there's no reason to believe while in a several-week period you can read at least, you know, some meaningful thing about those few people, see how they, you know, overlap in their interests, and how they differ from one another. So to go into a new subject and learn how to come to grips with it on some meaningful level is a very important exercise. Obviously you don't want to stay superficial like that, but to have the courage to go into a new topic is something I learned to do at Harvard. Two, chance was such an important factor. The same things that worked so effectively for me, would not have been effective had I come along 10 years earlier or 10 years later. The timing was just right. This was a time in which the study of learning was just opening up. I was one of the few people that knew cellular physiology that could apply it to the study of behaviour. It was just a chance and that, with the system that I had, interesting results emerged rather readily. This was sheer luck.

Also, who can determine the choice of colleagues at every point in the anatomy initially with [Richard] Coggeshall and later with [Craig] Bailey. In the biochemistry with Jimmy Schwartz, and the behaviour with [Tom] Carew, and Pinsker and Kupfermann. In the cellular physiology with [John] Koester, and then [Steve] Siegelbaum. You know, at each point… Axel when I came to the molecular biology, Philip Goelet. You know, Goelet came to my lab just as I'm ready to think about genes, and he helped me think about genes. You know, that's amazing. So it was really very fortunate, the timing of these things. A lot of it is chance.

[Q] Going further back, if you had never gotten involved with Anna Kris and her family and gotten so taken up with Freud, do you think you ever would have become a scientist?

Never. Never. Not only that, I must say, without Denise I would have never had the kind of career I had. Because my brother was so outstanding, I never appreciated my capabilities. Not that I have such great capabilities, but I didn't have the confidence that I had in myself that I gained with Denise. Denise saw in me a creative potential that she encouraged at every single step. And sometimes actually it, you know… certainly financial sacrifices to our family, I don't think it was any other kind of sacrifice. But she was immensely supportive at critical points in my career. And the whole Anna Kris episode shows what a role chance is. I mean, Anna Kris got me interested in psychoanalysis, but you know, if we had stayed together I would have ended up being a psychoanalyst, I would not have… So it's really, you know, having gone with Anna, having… You know, the two of us separating, taking this elective, by chance, and Denise urging me to stay with it, because I enjoyed it so much were really absolutely seminal in me doing this. And working with Grundfest and Stanley Crain and then Alden Spencer. And Kupfermann and Carew. I mean, the behavioral people were so immensely helpful. Schwartz—very, very helpful.

Eric Kandel (b. 1929) is an American neuropsychiatrist. He was a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He shared the prize with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard. Kandel, who had studied psychoanalysis, wanted to understand how memory works. His mentor, Harry Grundfest, said, 'If you want to understand the brain you're going to have to take a reductionist approach, one cell at a time.' Kandel then studied the neural system of the sea slug Aplysia californica, which has large nerve cells amenable to experimental manipulation and is a member of the simplest group of animals known to be capable of learning. Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He is also Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which is now the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University. Kandel's popularized account chronicling his life and research, 'In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind', was awarded the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Award for Science and Technology.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: learning, luck, cellular physiology, behaviour, colleagues, career

Duration: 4 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2015

Date story went live: 04 May 2016