The Neuroscientists

Parallel Lives

Drs. Jim Robertson ’53 
Jon Robertson ’68

Neurosurgeons and brothers Jim Robertson ’53 and Jon Robertson ’68, 15 years apart in age—and miles apart while growing up—finally found their lives aligned after Rhodes and medical school.

As a young boy Jim, who was born in McComb, MS, moved with his parents to Memphis, where he grew up and graduated from high school, Rhodes and the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. Jon took a reverse route. He was born in Memphis, but when his father retired, moved, as a child, with his parents to a farm outside his father’s hometown of Independence, LA. Jon’s first year of college was at a public university in Louisiana, but Jim, by then a practicing neurosurgeon, wasn’t having any of that, so he persuaded his brother to come to Rhodes. Once here, Jon played football, majored in science and graduated from UT Memphis medical school, as Jim had. Their lives were finally coming together.

Rhodes didn’t offer a major in Neuroscience in the 1950s, so Jim took the premed track—three years at Rhodes, then right into UT College of Medicine. It garnered him plenty of credits, but no official Rhodes degree. By the time Jon entered med school in the 1960s, he had earned a four-year degree, majoring in Biology with a minor in Chemistry. Jim decided on Neurosurgery during medical school, prompted by the untimely death of a younger brother from meningitis. Jon decided on Neurosurgery after a rotation in Pathology and a “fruitful” internship.

Both have practiced at Memphis’ renowned Semmes-Murphey Neurologic & Spine Institute, which constitutes the Department of Neurosurgery at UT Memphis. Both Robertsons have served as department chair; in fact, Jon took over from Jim when Jim retired. The brothers have also served as president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. So close has been their association, says Jon, that “for years, at national professional meetings we attended together, people were always telling my brother how happy they were to meet his son.”

The brothers are quick to credit Rhodes with the excellent preparation they received for medical school. Says Jon, “My favorite professor at Rhodes was Harold Lyons. That’s who I did my Biochemistry under. That was one of the big courses in the first year of medical school, and I aced it. If I hadn’t gone to Rhodes, I probably would have had trouble in medical school.”

Jim recalls “Man” as his favorite course outside the sciences, especially his professors A.P. Kelso and John Osman. Jim and his wife have established the James T. and Valeria B. Robertson Chair in Biological Science at Rhodes, currently held by Biology professor Mary Miller. “It’s given me great pleasure,” he says. “I feel I’ve given back to Rhodes a little bit of what it gave me.”

Singing in the Brain

Michael Long ’97
Assistant Professor of Neuroscience
New York University Medical Center

Michael Long was one of those students who loved Neuroscience so much when it wasn’t yet part of the Rhodes curriculum that he earned two degrees, a B.S. in Biology and B.A. in Psychology. After Rhodes, he got his Ph.D. at Brown and did a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT. For the past 2½ years, he has been an assistant professor of Neuroscience at the New York University Medical Center, where he directs a team of researchers in addition to teaching courses.

In his lab, Long and his research team study how groups of brain cells work together to produce skilled behaviors. They make many of their observations from an unlikely source—a tiny Australian songbird called a zebra finch. Long and colleagues use cutting-edge experimental techniques, many developed in Long’s lab, in order to determine “how all the cells in the songbirds’ brains work together to make that song happen.”

Songbirds, like humans, have to learn their vocalizations, Long says. “A young songbird will listen to a tutor, often its father, early on. Even with limited exposure to that song, the bird will remember and start practicing it.” After countless practice attempts over the first few months of its life, the bird will be able to sing. In the Long lab, while the bird is singing, scientists monitor and manipulate the activity of the bird’s brain cells with small devices that can be harmlessly mounted to the bird’s head in the forebrain area, Long explains.

“We can peer into the electrical activity of single neurons while this bird is singing.” From these recordings, he gains insight into what underlies the production of the song and, more broadly, can begin to unravel how other skilled behaviors may be produced. To determine what brain regions are relevant for further study, Long and colleagues developed a simple method for pinpointing the areas responsible for creating these behaviors. “We can manipulate the temperature of the nucleus, drop the temperature by a few degrees in this area, but leave the rest of the brain completely unaltered. When we do this, the bird sings in slow motion.”

The research has direct application for humans. Long has teamed up with a group of neurosurgeons at the University of Iowa, for whom he has built a similar device that is used in the operating room. “In surgery, the doctors want to find any area of the brain that is involved in higher level motor function, like speech, so as not to damage it during a procedure. The current methods of intraoperative brain mapping carry a certain degree of risk. I proposed using a cooling probe that a surgeon can march around different areas of the brain while the patient is awake and talking. If you’re over a speech-related area you can hear a person’s speech slow down. Now you can safely identify these areas and be careful to leave those alone. This technique has already been used in a cohort of patients with extremely encouraging results.”

Long had mentors in the area of Neuroscience. At Rhodes, “Robert Strandburg in Psychology was a major mentor and inspiration, and he continues to be. He taught me everything I needed to know to fall in love with this field. Biology professor Jay Blundon, now at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, was another important mentor.”

While at Rhodes, Long’s love of research sparked an idea—a science symposium for students. With college and faculty support, especially from professors Strandburg and Natalie Person, Long founded URCAS—the annual Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts Symposium. The first year saw 30 student posters from science majors, but Long thought at the time it should include people in the arts and humanities. The next year, it did. Today, URCAS includes hundreds of student submissions from many fields.

The Interdisciplinary Approach

Robert Strandburg
Associate Professor of Psychology
Neuroscience Program Committee

“I don’t like the term ‘liberal arts and sciences.’ It’s redundant,” declares Robert Strandburg, associate professor of Psychology and a member of Rhodes’Neuroscience Program Committee.

No wonder. At Rhodes, Neuroscience is a six-year-old interdisciplinary major designed to provide students “a nuanced understanding of the methodological challenges and conceptual issues that lie at the heart of efforts to understand the function of the nervous system and its role in behavior,” according to the college catalogue. Thus, Neuroscience majors take courses in Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Philosophy, Physics, Psychology and Mathematics. The catalogue says it “makes it all the more apparent to students that the conventional boundaries that have often separated seemingly incompatible disciplines from one another evaporate when we are presented with new intellectual challenges.”

Meeting those new intellectual challenges was Strandburg’s mission, along with several other Rhodes faculty, in creating the Neuroscience program in 2006. “Before then, there were a number of students who put together bridge majors with courses principally from Psychology, Biology and Chemistry, in effect, creating their own Neuroscience major. Today, there are four neuroscientists on the faculty, many of our incoming students express an interest in the discipline and the number of Neuroscience majors has increased steadily,” he says.

Strandburg, who has been at Rhodes for 24 years, came from UCLA, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Psychology.

In addition to Neuroscience majors’ course work, Strandburg stresses that the students are expected to do research. It is in the laboratory where students learn the practice and discipline of scientific research. All of the Neuroscience faculty have several students working in their labs, and there are exciting opportunities off campus, he says. “A number of Neuroscience majors have participated in the Summer Plus program at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” he explains. “This is an intensive research experience that pairs Rhodes students with St. Jude scientists, placing them in laboratories for two summers (full time) and the academic year between (part time), and there is now a similar program exclusively for Neuroscience majors at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, which Jim Robertson ’53 initially established.” Strandburg says he is pleased to report that this work frequently leads to authorship on papers submitted to scientific journals.

Yet Strandburg remains committed to the role of a program of liberal arts study in the education of scientists: “The critical thinking and communication skills, as well as the ability to stretch one’s imagination beyond the boundaries of current scientific thinking, are at the core of being a great scientist. Science is not just data collection. You have to ask the right questions. These are the skills best fostered at a liberal arts college.”

Figuring Out Things

Piper Carroll ’13

Piper Carroll, from near Baltimore, decided to major in Neuroscience before coming to Rhodes. “In high school, I took a Biology class and a Psychology class. I couldn’t decide which one I liked better, and then I realized there was a beautiful subject called Neuroscience.”

Last semester, Carroll, one of 14 Neuro majors and the John Chester Frist ’28 Scholarship recipient, worked in Biology professor David Kabelik’s Behavioral Neuroendocrinology lab. “I’m working there now, and will do so in the spring semester,” she says. “So far we have observed the social behavior of lizards—males with males, and males with females. We dissect their brains and record the activities of different areas of the brain, trying to determine which sections are active during social behavior so we can make a sort of map of the brain. We study the sections under a state-of-the-art microscope in the lab that takes pictures on its own of every single slice we have, and we can look at them on a computer.”

“I think Neuro is the most interesting major. How little we really know about the field—you have to get used to the fact that the things you are learning in class might be completely different a year later. Nothing is definite. We’ll be sitting in class and Dr. Kabelik will be going over the way hormones in the brain work and will say, ‘We think it is this, but it could be this, or it could be that.’ It’s very different from some of the other sciences that have been studied for so long, where you know things as fact. You really have to question everything and keep wondering because we don’t know everything about the brain. I love figuring all these new things out. Who knows—I could find out something amazing down in my lab in Frazier Jelke one day.”

Besides Professor Kabelik, Carroll counts among her faculty mentors Psychology professor Robert Strandburg and her adviser, Psychology professor Kim Gerecke. She also admires professor Larryn Peterson, who teaches classes in Organic Chemistry, and is “glad that it’s incorporated it into Neuroscience.” Off campus, says Carroll, “I’ve had a Biology internship at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, which gave me the opportunity to shadow doctors in many different areas.”

But it’s not all science for Carroll. “This fall I’m taking Genetics, Organic Chemistry and a History course, and doing research in Professor Kabelik’s lab. I enjoy taking the requirements outside of my major. It’s amazing how much my classes seem to have fit together. I’ll be in one class that I think has nothing to do with my major and things will start popping up that I just learned about in my Neuro class. It’s very surprising, but it’s really great. That’s the thing about Neuroscience too—there are subjects like Philosophy and Psychology in the curriculum. It’s an interdisciplinary major—you get everything.”