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My interview for Massachusetts General Hospital


My first bit of scientific research
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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I was not accepted and there are many reasons for that – one of which was that I was involved in a debate in high school, and the debate had to do with standing armies, and my principal, who was rather narrow in his views of politics, came to the conclusion I must have been some kind of far left demonic figure, maybe even a communist. And I do know that it was mentioned in some of the letters that were written about college. In any event I didn't get into college but I managed to get my sister persuade Ursinus College to take me. Well, that was in some ways a vain venture because in a year and a half I'd dropped out. One day I decided this was rather boring and I left for Miami Beach, Florida, where I spent a considerable amount of time at the poolside, and after that time my mother showed up and said, 'I understand that you've got about 19 bucks left in the bank', and I said, 'In fact, 14, Mother.' She said, 'Well, guess what, if you don't go back to school you're not going to get another cent and you're going to have to work.' And I said, 'Mother, you know I've sworn that I would never work.' She said, 'Well, think about it', and she swept out.

I thought about it and I made a deal that I... I would go back to Ursinus College if they'd give me a key to the library and didn't insist I attend lectures; I'd take the exams but no lectures. They very kindly did that, and so there it was that I became an autodidact. I sat around, probably wasting a huge amount of time because I had no-one to guide me, reading all kinds of books that I fantasized were going to give me some understanding of the world. I remember particularly the ones of Russell and Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, where they attempted in two huge volumes full of arcane script the description of their attempt to reduce mathematics entirely to logic. Well, I spent a lot of time on that but I didn't get too much satisfaction, I must say, in the sense of understanding anything. Following this whole set of episodes I did get into the University of Pennsylvania, where things were more challenging, I must say, and it was in fact through the study of anatomy that I realized how challenging they could be. So I immersed myself pretty deeply.

By the third... by the third year, the end of the third year, I was lucky enough to be allowed in to the Johnson Foundation for Medical Biophysics under Britton Chance and there it was that I did the first piece of scientific work I ever did. Chance was a virtuoso in physical chemistry and was well-known for his remarkable efforts at measuring fast chemical reactions. He had a theory about a certain enzyme in yeast called cytochrome c peroxidase, which is involved in the oxidative path for respiration, and he had this idea that there was a ternary complex between that hydrogen peroxide and cytochrome c, and I spent a good deal of effort using his fancy apparatus to show that in fact it did not exist. I wrote a paper but Chance never published it; he put it on a shelf. I've seen him recently, by the way – about a year ago. He's remarkable. I think he's into his 90s and he has persisted as a... a very vigorous and interested personality. Well, that was my real exposure for the first time to what you might call serious scientific research.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Ursinus College, Principia Mathematica, University of Pennsylvania, Johnson Foundation for Medical Biophysics, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Britton Chance

Duration: 3 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008