This past week, a great man of science passed away unexpectedly. In a loss profound within the behavior neuroscience community, we miss Howard Eichenbaum. This scientist was known for his prolific work on the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure shared by animals from rodents to people, and taught us much about the brain’s role in memory, learning, and emotion. One of his graduate students, Timothy Otto, became one of my own graduate mentors.
For several years until a decade ago, I spent time in his Rutgers laboratory. I learned from, studied under, and published with Dr. Otto; his criticism helped strengthen my work, hone my behavioral observation expertise first watered at UNT, and illuminate skillset cracks that I continue to work to fill.
Perhaps good mentors hope we follow in their footsteps. I think great mentors foresee that often, we will not, and still encourage us to forge a unique path—or to find the “path that has heart”. From the vantage point of my private practice serving adults with dementia, developmental disabilities or autism, and children affected by Rett syndrome, asperger’s, or foster care, I realize now how great a loss it might seem to have one’s student (although I was not all that promising) leap from the academic tower—and fall right out of the neurotree.
Yet although we are no longer tethered, we remain invisibly connected. Today my work touches some of the most vulnerable populations and is informed in a way it could not have been except for those laboratory days.
When I support foster families who raise babies exposed in utero to drugs of abuse the work Tim supported informs my understanding of a brain changed by stress and trauma, and memory that just doesn’t work the same anymore after exposure to an early “unsafe” environment.
As I coach professionals, doctors, teachers and behavior analysts to learn how the brain is affected by these stressful experiences or by learning, I thank Dr. Otto (for the neuroscience perspective) and Dr. Rosales-Ruiz (for appreciating how reinforcement history and schedules impact the current behavior stream).
And this week, when I consulted for a major hospital leading an interdisciplinary team to discern how the medical and behavioral needs interact for our mutual adult client with significant challenging behavior and dementia, I silently reviewed several articles we had read in my former labs.
Although in my current circumstances I do not have my own funded laboratory, I am acutely aware of the dramatic losses and funding cuts experienced by labs everywhere. In some cases, the only thing left to do is to teach: when research is halted, what will we do with the knowledge and skills we still have? Another of Tim’s students, a bright woman who had begun interesting but no longer funded lines of research, is now teaching full time in the West Coast, and her students are all the better for it (however devastating the loss to her career and to science).
Teaching is a love of mine too, and each season finds me partnering with a university (currently University of Colorado Denver), pouring my heart and time into another diverse group of students who need the courses toward board certification in behavior analysis.
Once upon a time, some of the best professors and teachers I’d ever had urged me to stop teaching, or at least to not put all my eggs (reinforcers) into one basket. I heard and honored this in spirit, spreading my talents and interests wide and collecting new clients and collaborative agencies endlessly (in part to not get bored, and also to grow the boundaries of my competence as instructed by my field’s ethics code). But I will always find a way to teach.
A good teacher facilitates learning in a specific area, but also inspires her student to do more than was taught! Great teaching—and great sequencing of encounters with materials and experiences—can lead to generative learning, and the spontaneous use of new skills that surprise us when our students use them.
Recently, I was humbled when someone introduced me in a meeting as a person who brings people together in a new way. I dearly enjoy working with a different type of disorder or agency every month. But I did not forge this path alone.
Academia requires sacrifice, and for many academics, our ideas and students may be the only “children” we will ever have. To Drs. Otto, Rosales-Ruiz, Ala’i-Rosales, and Wagner, I thank you- as my behavior analysis, psychology and neuroscience mothers and fathers you provided the encouragement and foundations so that it was possible to try something different, bridging the scientific and clinical worlds in a rewarding and collaborative way. To our scientific grandfather Dr. Eichenbaum, from the lineage of Skinner, Lashley and Hebb, among other giants—we salute you.