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Faculty Essays

Peter DetwilerPeter Detwiler
Burger Emporium

Hey Henry! How are ya? Where ya been?

Just fine and no place in particular.

What can I do for you?

I'll stick with your standard cheeseburger. . . medium rare, no pickles, light on the onions.

What ya been doin' ?


Tartar sauce with your fries?

Sure, ... why not.

Science, now what exactly is that anyway?

It's a kind of art.

What's art?

Oh, come on Emile, you know what art is.

No, I don't ... not really, that is. Drink?

Rainier Ale, draft. Well what it really is, is the clockspring of our collective intellect. It's what keeps us moving, the force that fuels exploration, the mindset that drives people to PUSH against the limits, to look beyond the boundaries. It's the constant flux at the leading edge that expands our perceptions of nature, real and imaginary, our notions of truth, our acceptance of behavior, our definitions of new.


Small green, house dressing.

Why science rather than some other kind of art?

In fact the choice was probably more chance than design. But in retrospect, the boundaries at the forefront of science are well defined and you play by an established set of rules. That's not the case with other art forms. The direction of the next step is not clear and there are no real rules.

Sounds like a better game to me, Henry, ... more freedom.

Maybe, maybe not.


No thanks. Say you discover beauty or music or truth hidden deep in a corner of what had always been thought to be ugly, discordant worthlessness. How do you prove it to anybody? How do you convince them? They perceive it the same way as they always had - valueless and obscene; the same old steaming pile....

You have to start a movement, Henry. Get the galleries involved. Attract the critic's attention. Put it in the museums. Take it to the people!

Exactly Emile, and before you know it you are a partner in a commercial enterprise that massages the essence of your discovery and restricts your freedom. Look at the never-ending battle between free expression and censorship.

Another beer?

Not tonight. It's hard to measure freedom but I think you could argue that there is more freedom in science than in other forms of art. At least in science when you make a discovery you can prove it to anyone, that's what the rules are for: 2 + 2 = 4. Take it or leave it, that's the way it is. The critics -- the curators -- the people, don't have to like it -- tout it -- or buy it. But, .., they can't ignore it!


I don't think so, just the bill.

Sharona GordonSharona Gordon

Bad Animal Karma

I should never have pets. I am a bad pet person. Totally unsuitable as a pet owner. Keep those furry things away from me – for their own good!

My first pet was an adorable terrier named Lucy. She was a mutt but came from a fancy suburban shelter that specialized in pure bred dogs. They were glad to get rid of Lucy, and, at the time, I thought it was just because she was of dubious origins. My husband and I picked her out, but my mother had to come sign for her. At eighteen and nineteen years old we were considered too young to be responsible to adopt a dog. We loved this baby substitute for four years, even though she never was truly house trained (terriers love to pee on carpet), ripped up the house whenever we forgot to put her in her crate, and was a bed hog. When we finally had a real baby Lucy couldn’t handle it. She had always had terrible abandonment issues and became depressed around the time our baby got really interesting. We gave her away to a veteran with two kids who lived next to a cemetery.

Then there was Sparky, a purebred Standard Poodle. Sparky was… well, he was defective. We had him for a year. No amount of behavioral therapy or visits to the vet could stop him from peeing and pooping all over the house. We really tried. He also jumped all over the kids (now older), barked non-stop when we were not home, and was generally a pain in the ass. One day we went for a walk in the park with Sparky and the kids. A woman stopped to admire him. I convinced her to keep the doggy. I hope one day my children will forgive me.

Next were the cats. They were great cats. Part-Siamese sisters who were found abandoned on a riverbanks. They never really had names, but we sometimes called them Angel and Lucifer. There were really nice, sweet animals. But I got sick. And sicker. And sicker. I couldn’t breathe and was tired all the time. I went to the doctor. We tried shampoos, treatments for the cats, treatments for me. Finally, we left the house for a week and miraculously I got better. Bye bye kitties.

After the cats came the corn snake. We still have the snake. Snakes are just great pets. You can forget to feed or water them for quite a while and they don’t seem to mind.

A few weeks ago we got Lucky. Lucky is an Australian Shepard mix from a local shelter. Nothing fancy. But she is GREAT and we just love her. At two years old, she came to us already house-trained. She knows how to do the basic tricks: sit, down, stay, and come. She doesn’t bark. She is VERY gentle and doesn’t jump on people. Will she be a keeper? I hope so, but if not there is always the walk in the park….

Wayne Crill
Wayne Crill

Why I Hang My Shingle in Physiology and Biophysics

I am here totally by accident. My path was governed by Brownian motion with a nudge from common sense. This is probably incomprehensible to most people who plan their lives in great detail. I was just lucky that I ended up doing exactly what I want to do. Imagine actually getting paid to discover exciting new things about living organisms.

As a high school student, I had little idea what the life sciences and medicine were all about and certainly had never heard of a career in basic medical science. Biology was the most similar discipline and it seemed to be all naming of animals and anatomical structures. When I came to the University of Washington as a medical student, I worked the first summer in Physiology and landed with a professor who was actually applying the things I enjoyed, like physics and math, to biological problems. It was during these summer sessions and the year that I took off from my medical training that I became hooked by the lure of trying to understand how cells process information.

I also enjoyed my neurology residency, particularly caring for patients and the detective work involved in diagnosis. But my postdoctoral year in Physiology made me appreciate the uncertainty that physicians must live with. I may be looking through physiology-colored glasses, but physicians talk about mechanisms as though they were understood. Of course, physiology cannot explain everything. But physiologists have a different attitude toward attacking and explaining problems. It's an approach that I simply feel more comfortable with.

There still are certain attractions to clinical neurology. Probably the most important is the continual reinforcement that one gets from patient care. In contrast, it may take months or years before you ever realize anything from a physiology experiment and that reinforcement may all be negative! I like keeping my hand in medicine. Perhaps I view it as occupational therapy and insurance against the vagaries of NIH grant support. An objective person would call it a hobby. However, I do know that my medical education has influenced the way I do science. But right now I'd rather be a physiologist.


Mark BothwellMark Bothwell
Biochemist's Heaven
(sung as a talking blues)

I was working late in lab one day
In search of a Nobel prize
When I sneezed while mouth pipetting TCA
And precipitated my demise.

So here I am in biochemist's heaven
How 1 got here I will never know,
But I got to speak to the man in charge
Cause I'd rather spend my time in hell below.

Those heavenly halls are lined with labs
Filled with angels in lab coats with wings
Instead of harps they have Pipetmen,
Eppendorf tubes and things.

They're running columns of Sephadex
And electrophoresing on gels
Amid the heavenly scent of nutrient broth
And mercaptoethanol smells.

So here I am in biochemist's heaven
How I got here I will never know
But I got to speak to the man in charge
Cause I'd rather spend my time in hell below.

There are thermal cyclers by the gross
And centrifuges ultra and otherwise
With tenured archangels flitting about
Yelling instructions from the skies.

There are piles of pipettes with unbroken tips
And graduations you can still read.
There are pH meters that actually function
With accuracy guaranteed.

So here I am in biochemist's heaven
How I got here I will never know,
But I got to speak to the man in charge
Cause I'd rather spend my time in hell below.

There are spectrophotometers and
NMR and spectropolarimeters,
VPC and mass spectrometers
With Ph.D.'s around the perimeters.

There are theories hanging from every cloud
And postulates piled in rows
With neat little stacks of experimental facts
And mighty few of those.

So here I am in biochemist's heaven
How I got here I will never know
But I got to speak to the man in charge
Cause I'd rather spend my time in hell below.


Marjorie AndersonMarjorie Anderson
One Neurophysiologist's Path

My interest in neurophysiology has always stemmed from an interest in neurological disorders, especially those that affect motor function. Why, then, did I choose graduate study in physiology rather than medical school? The ideal answer would have been that my intellectual curiosity compelled me to explore the questions that I found interesting. That was, in fact, a basic reason for my choice, but I also will admit that there were other reasons. I was afraid of medical school debts, and I also thought that the life of a university professor would be more compatible with what I assumed would be my societal role of wife and mother than would be the life of physician. Only later did I realize that the M.D./Ph.D. salary differential would quickly have paid off medical school debts, and the life of a research scientist these days often is more demanding than the current practice of medicine in many clinical settings. Did I make the wrong choice? Absolutely not! I would have been exasperated with the repetitive complaints of patients and the need to move on to the next patient, instead of exploring the case that interested me. And my salary, although less than that of most physicians, still allows me to do all the things that I really want to do.

So - what is it that I really want to do? Basically, I want to know how the brain produces coordinated movement. Much of this interest has come out of my interest in clinical motor disorders, including Parkinson's disease. During my career, I have progressed from studying movement-related neurons in anesthetized animals (that don't move!) to studying neurons in motor systems of awake animals, in which extensive behavioral training must be used to sort out the true meaning of a cell's discharge. Teaching monkeys to play video games according to our rules, not theirs, is a challenge. I'm quick to tell students it's a bit like training children. You may be able to modify their behavior - or find that they're controlling yours!

The twists and turns in a scientific career path are what keep life interesting. Much to my surprise, I'm now involved in destroying the very cells in humans that I have been studying in monkeys for several years. The "sound" of neurons in the globus pallidus leads us to the correct position in which to destroy these cells in the pallidotomy procedure that is done to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Once again, my observations in the operating room lead me back to the lab. Why do these cells behave the way they do in Parkinson's disease? Why do pallidotomies work?


Steven CarlsonSteven Carlson
The New Neural Wizardry?

What if you could test the function of any part of the brain by temporarily turning off the neurons in that location and observing the effect on behavior? This should soon be possible in mice. New techniques in molecular biology already allow foreign proteins to be expressed and normal proteins to be genetically deleted.

So imagine the following experiment: You genetically engineer mice to express the light chain of tetanus toxin, but only in the CA1 neurons of the hippocampus, where they are hypothesized to function in learning and memory. The tetanus toxin blocks neurotransmitter release, and you put the expression of its gene under the promotional control of an insect hormone not normally present in mice. Once you've expressed the toxin, it blocks the synaptic output of the CA1 neurons. Now you are able to test the ability of these mice to learn a task or to remember a previously learned one. Next you can compare the new behavior to that of the same mice, both before you turned on the toxin as well as after you turned off the toxin and the CA1 neurons have regained synaptic function.

This experiment is not yet possible, but it is just below the horizon. To do it you would need to learn modern molecular biological and cellular methods, as well as systems neuroscience - and begin to understand how behavior is generated by manipulating it with molecular tools.


Bertil HilleBertil Hille
Learning to Think

As a faculty, we have spent a great deal of time thinking about how to train our students to become flexible, imaginative, and effective scientists. We have also tried to define what being a physiologist really means. Let me express my thoughts on these interrelated issues.

In my view, the life sciences form a continuum. There is no specific boundary demarcating what is physiological and what is not or what is useful to solve a problem and what is not. All successful life scientists move around in their interests and methodologies, often achieving their insights by drawing from a large fund of apparently trivial facts which surface from memory files to congeal into an idea. As more and more problems are being solved by interdisciplinary approaches, we should encourage our students to acquire facts in areas that we ourselves know less well. I do not advocate teaching long lists of facts; rather, by revealing that we know and use many facts to do science, we can help our students appreciate the importance of factual information so that they will seek breadth and depth in their specific knowledge.

I believe that we should train our students without regard for inculcating a specific disciplinary label. By virtue of being physiologists we will naturally impart a physiological tilt to much of what we say, and students will thus learn physiological thinking. Our program must include exposure to a variety of problems, a variety of good thinking, and a variety of approaches. Some of these will be physiological. If we do our jobs well, then many of our ideals will be perceived as valuable by our students.

Our students should be exposed to deep thinking. They need to know how much work goes into responsible, expert opinions and how scientific decisions are made. They need to understand and experience what expertise means and that critical thinking is hard and rewarding. In several areas of study they need case examples so they can emulate appropriate models in their own pursuit of new questions. They don't need to and couldn't think deeply about all subjects related to physiology.

In summary, I favor a curriculum that guarantees breadth and depth, that illustrates deep thinking and the use of facts, and that stimulates interest and motivates action in research. Because we are physiologists our students will learn physiological thinking. Nevertheless, I do not favor a fixed package that claims that one body of scientific knowledge is the right one or the necessary one to know.


Robert SteinerRobert Steiner
Wake Robin Farm

Puffing smoke into the entrance of the hive and waiting just a moment before lifting the lid enhance the tranquility of the bees and the beekeeper alike. I love working bees on a hot summer day, sweating bullets in my white bee suit and veil, with the bouquet of fireweed honey wafting into my nostrils. Without fail, when I work bees, childhood memories come tumbling into my daydreams.

My father died during the polio epidemic of the early 1950s, leaving my mother and her two children in a small farming town in Wisconsin. My mother did everything in her power to foster my becoming an astronomer. She loved science. She helped me build telescopes and spent many nights with me searching the winter sky for nebulae, double stars, and comets. I loved the idea that I might come to understand the makings of the universe. I never imagined I would do anything else. Astronomy was my hobby, and by the age of 7, I had become wedded to the idea of making this hobby my life's work. But in the Midwest, we had many cloudy days, often too many for good celestial observation.

Instead, I spent countless hours laying in the alfalfa field near the barn looking at clouds... waiting, waiting impatiently, sucking on winter rye and discovering birds... birds of all kinds winging their way along the Central Flyway. I retrained my telescope on "V" formations in the sky and wild geese. In the late autumn, I would hide in a cornshock and watch birds feeding on what the farmers and raccoons had scorned. I watched for weeks and months on end. I became intrigued with these animals and how their behaviors changed with the seasons. I wondered how the wild geese knew the autumn and spring. I could hear them in migration, honking in the night sky, and wondered how they could find their way. I wondered if, perhaps, they too might be stargazers but I couldn't imagine.

I found a den of fox and watched the vixen nurture her kits. I wondered how this ravenous carnivore could be so delightfully playful at one moment and so sinister at another. How are these behaviors organized? I examined the breasts of countless broody hens and wondered what events occurred in their brain to cause them to pluck out their brood patch. I was amazed with the "flexibility" of my prized broody hen after she was willing to adopt the 25 ducklings I had stuffed under her one night. I have always been interested in bees... the evolutionary forces creating these insect societies, their communication, their genetics, their physiology. Why don't they all freeze to death over the winter? What's in royal jelly to cause a larva to become a queen instead of a worker? I raise bees to satisfy these curiosities. I raise geese for the same reason - to come closer to understanding the behavior and physiology of these beautiful creatures. I had become a biologist.

My life at home is carelessly and hopelessly intertwined with my life at the University. They are both manifestations of my childhood yearnings to understand the living world - parallel lives, living out a daydream to become an astronomer.

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