Convocation 2011 Address: Professor Richmond R. Thompson

Story posted August 31, 2011

"The Quail Debates"
Richmond R. Thompson
Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience
Director of the Neuroscience Program

Bowdoin College's 210th Convocation was held Wednesday, August 31, 2011, in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall. Following is the text of Professor Rick Thompson's address.

Rick Thompson200.jpg
Rick Thompson

Thank you, President Mills, for asking me to give this talk, in which I have about 12 minutes to say something inspirational to a group of predominately 18-year-old college freshmen without sounding overly cliché to a group of faculty that includes at least a few seasoned veterans who have heard quite a few such talks before. Making this of interest to everyone here is particularly difficult because as a group, your intellectual interests run a range from the mathematical modeling of black holes to how American stereotypes can be explored through the production of Latin film. There are also administrators, one in particular, whom I hope find this talk worthy of the invitation, and perhaps even a few parents who might be hoping to learn a little bit more about Bowdoin before leaving their children here.

So I'm going to start by talking about sex.

I hope that any interest I may have just raised in some will not diminish when I tell you this, but that any alarm potentially raised in others will — I am referring to sex in Japanese quail…a bird.

You see, when I went to graduate school I studied how the brain controls sexual behavior in male Japanese quail. It wasn't very impressive to my father, whom I had already disappointed by deciding to study psychology, not medicine, as an undergraduate. I therefore used to practice my future grant writing technique in our debates by trying to convince him that gaining general information about how the brain works, even as it relates to sexual behavior in Japanese quail, may ultimately help us fix something in humans. And then I'd usually remind him about how Fernando Nottebohm, who was at Rockefeller University at the time, studying how the canary brain allows these birds to learn and produce complex songs, discovered that new neurons, which are cells in the brain, are born throughout life in that species. This finding ran against the dogma of the time, which was that all vertebrates, including canaries and humans, were pretty much born with all of the neurons they'd ever have. His work made people reinvestigate that idea in mammals, and it was found that, in fact, new neurons are born throughout life, even in humans, a finding that actually could help us fix broken brains one day.

However, I'm not sure how far the Fernando Nottebohm story went towards justifying my own studies in quail in my father's eyes. Nor was he any more impressed when I then went on to become a postdoctoral research associate studying how a chemical produced in newt brains called vasotocin affects, once again, sexual behavior. This time, at least, the chemical was related to one produced in human brains called vasopressin that had been linked to a disorder associated with profound social impairments, autism. Now I could at least make the argument to my father that a better understanding of how these chemicals affect social behavior could help us fix an actual social disorder one day. Furthermore, I argued that the best way to develop that understanding was to first study how a more simple system works, that is, how vasotocin affects sexual behavior in newts. The analogy I gave my father was that if he were to begin work at an air conditioning repair company, it would make sense to learn how a basic window unit works before trying to fix a problem with the cooling system in the Empire State Building. He, at least, appreciated the real-world analogy.

When I came to Bowdoin I switched species again. I began working in goldfish, which are even more distantly related to us than are Japanese quail or roughskin newts. As you can guess, the rationale for my decision to study this species was not readily obvious to my father, nor to some of  my colleagues. Nonetheless, I began to look at how the same chemical I'd been studying in newts affects social behavior in goldfish. As it turns out, vasotocin affects how much time these animals spend near one another, and it does so by acting within neural circuits in goldfish brains that are similar to the circuits in our own brains.

So I could now justify all of my work to my father by saying that there are common brain blueprints in vertebrates, from how they are put together to the chemicals in them to how they control behavior. And that it’s therefore not unfathomable to say that what we learn in quail, newts, or goldfish will help us better understand human brains and perhaps even fix them when they break. In fact, because of the work done in species like these, scientists have recently begun to study how vasopressin may affect some complex social behaviors in our own species, including those related to sex.

Does anybody watch the TV show House? If so, you might have seen the episode in which one of the doctors says to another who is struggling with marital infidelity that his transgressions are likely because he has a certain version of the gene that codes for the vasopressin receptor, a molecule that mediates the effects of this chemical in the brain. This statement was based on a recent study done by a group in Sweden, which showed that men with particular versions of the vasopressin receptor gene report more problems with their marriages and weaker pair bonds with their partners than men with other versions of the gene. Now, this data does  not show that different versions of the vasopressin receptor gene cause men to act monogamously or promiscuously, as the oversimplification in House implied. But the data are nonetheless intriguing because they suggest that one of our most complex social behaviors, our propensity to develop and maintain romantic emotional pair bonds, dare I say it, to fall and stay in love, may be influenced by our basic biology. And because love often involves sex, we can now come back to Japanese quail. And to a confession I'm going to make about all of my science.

In contrast to the arguments I gave my father about why I studied sex in Japanese quail, I engaged in those studies not because I wanted to fix human brains, though I certainly hope the work may contribute to that one day, but rather because I'm simply interested in the biological mechanisms associated with the regulation of social behaviors in a variety of animals, including quail, newts, goldfish and humans. I happen to think all of those animals do some pretty interesting things, and so understanding how the brain evolved to help them do those things is what drives my work forward. In fact, that interest is what drew me to the field of behavioral neuroscience when I was a college freshman.

I had originally gone to college to play some ball, become a writer, and hopefully set myself up to get a job after graduation that would provide me with financial security. And yes, for those of you in the English Department, I do recognize the logical flaw in my thinking. But in the spring semester of my freshman year, in Psychology 101, I learned that scientists were beginning to unravel the biological mechanisms associated with behavioral regulation, even behaviors like sex and the tendencies of animals to form emotional attachments with others  - or, to continue to push the envelope, to fall in love, something we typically think of as quite mysterious and perhaps even beyond the realm of scientific inquiry. I was hooked. It was, in fact, what made me say "wow," this is the coolest thing I've ever learned.

And I believe that one of the primary tasks for each of you over the next four years is to put yourself in a position to have a similar moment, whether it comes about through your interactions with art, through your studies of how societies or governments work, of how chemicals interact, or, as in my case, of why organisms behave as they do. Whether or not you have that moment, though, will depend on your level of engagement in the classes you choose to take.

But that is perhaps an idealistic, academic view. The truth is that many of you, like I was as a college freshman, are likely thinking more pragmatically than that, particularly in light of today’s unemployment numbers. In fact, I'm guessing that you, as well as your parents, are banking on Bowdoin's outstanding reputation to keep you out of that statistical category once you graduate. After all, college is not, as it may have been when Bowdoin was founded, simply about the cultivation of the gentlemanly scholar.  It is also about developing a trade, so to speak, something that will allow you and those you love to live comfortably in the world.

However, before those realities completely crowd out the romantic vision about finding your passion that I tried to create a minute ago, I want to go back to my father. Remember, I said he hoped I would study medicine, I believe because of its potential for a large financial payoff and, perhaps, its prestige. And he made some tremendous sacrifices to give me that opportunity. He worked at a job in the automotive industry that he hated for most of his adult life so I would be able to attend a liberal arts college that, like Bowdoin, had a substantial price tag. And then I went and made a choice that seemed quite dubious to him at the time — to study psychology, not medicine. How was I going to justify his sacrifice, financially, with an undergraduate psychology degree?

Fortunately, I was able to turn that degree into a career of teaching and research that has brought me not only some financial security, but also a great deal of satisfaction and even joy, particularly on the days when class goes just right or something actually works in the lab. And though it seemed my father thought most about the financial payoff that might come from the sacrifices he made for me so I could go to college, I think the thing that has made him most happy to have made those sacrifices is that he's been able to watch me work at a job that often brings me an excitement and joy that his rarely did.  I am eternally grateful to him for that.

Now I am not arguing that all of you should pursue advanced degrees and a position in academia. Rather, I want to emphasize that you, like me when I went to college, have a luxury right now that you may never have again. I say it’s a luxury to be a member of the Bowdoin class of 2015 because very few people in this world, no matter how smart they are or how hard they work, ever get the opportunity to be at a place like Bowdoin.  It is an institution designed to open up the world to you and thus to give you some exceptional choices about the direction your life takes from here.  Choices that few people in this world ever get.

Of course, not all of you are going to find dream jobs in the fields you choose to study while here, even if you are talented, work hard, and "do all the right things." Interests can, after all, change, and the things you think are important right now may shift over time. Also, sometimes things just don't work out in life the way we hope they will. But the chances that you will find a job or develop a lifestyle with intrinsic meaning, by which I mean a way of living that brings a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, and perhaps even joy – rather than dread and a questioning of worth, which I have seen many people struggle with daily – increase every time you embrace an opportunity to explore the possibilities in the world around you.

So don't squander this opportunity. Think hard about why you are here. And perhaps even about what those who helped you get here would most like to see you do with this opportunity. My guess is that they, like my father, want to see you leave here with the means to become financially secure or even well-off. However, I'm also guessing that their bigger hope is that you'll learn something about the world while you are at Bowdoin that opens your eyes wide and makes you say Wow!, as the first classes that I took about the brain and behavior did for me when I went to college. And when that happens, that you'll throw your back into learning more about whatever that thing is for you and, ultimately, that you'll use what you learn here to develop a career that will add to your happiness, not detract from it, which can be tougher than you think. Those are also the hopes that we as a faculty have for each of you, and we will do what we can to help you make that happen.  We can talk about your obligation to give something back to the world later, an obligation that I believe becomes more obvious as the world does open up to you, as I truly hope it will in the next four years.

With that, I would like to officially welcome you to the college. We all look forward to the work ahead.

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