Dr. Eric Kandel to Kick Off YIVO’s “Maimonides and Medicine” Conference
On November 6, Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel, the Fred Kavli Professor and Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Sciences at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, will provide the kick-off address at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s conference on “Jews and Medicine.”
No one could be more fitting to introduce a conference on the roles and responsibilities of Jews in the medical field. Dr. Kandel, an Austrian-born Jew who fled his country on the eve of World War II, was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize for his seminal work in the field of neurobiology, most notably for his research on how the brain changes as a result of learning.
Kandel defied conventional wisdom in the 1960’s by working with the invertebrate sea snail Aplysia. Though “few self-respecting neurophysiologists…would leave the study of learning on mammals to work with invertebrates,” Kandel’s “reductionist” approach confirmed that “analysis of learning in a simple animal would reveal universal mechanisms that are also employed in more complex organisms.” Ultimately, Kandel discovered that learning leads to changes in the strength of synaptic connections, or distinct circuits of nerve cells, and that the synapses can be modulated in different ways as a result of learning processes, a finding that has become a building block for generations of biochemists.
Kandel’s path on the road to distinction was far from predictable. He was only eight years old when, in 1939, he and his family emigrated to the U.S. to escape Nazi occupation of his native Austria. Kandel attributes his last year in Vienna as a key factor in his later interest in the mechanisms of memory. In his Autobiography, he muses, “I am struck, as others have been, at how deeply these traumatic events of my childhood have been burned into my memory…For me, the frightening experiences of my last year in Vienna are certainly the most powerful of my ‘flashbulb memories’, the emotionally charged and vivid memory of significant events that came to fascinate me.”
Following his childhood in Brooklyn, Kandel was one of two students from Erasmus Hall High School accepted to Harvard, where he studied history under noted U.S. historian and author, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Kandel wrote his honors thesis on Hitler’s National Socialism movement, opining that “had intellectuals mobilized effectively and brought along segments of the general population, Hitler’s government might well have been toppled.”
It was his friendship with a Viennese woman in Cambridge, the daughter of two Freudian psychoanalysts, that piqued Kandel’s interest in understanding how the brain worked. He attended N.Y.U. Medical School determined to become a psychoanalyst, until an association with famed neurobiologist Harry Grundfest opened the door to a lifelong career in laboratory research that took him from the NIH to Paris, Harvard, NYU, and ultimately, in 1974, to Columbia, where his remarkable 30 year tenure has earned him nine honorary degrees and a sheaf of academic awards and honors. In his “spare time”, while organizing syllabi for a neural science course that he developed for Columbia students, Kandel wrote the seminal textbook for college and medical students, Principals of Neural Science.
Based on his lifelong study of learned behavior, Kandel offers sound advice to the student: “There is good evidence that space learning – that is, not cramming the night before the exam but studying on a regular basis – is much more conducive for putting things into one’s long term memory.”
And for the lifelong learner, Kandel urges that “keeping intellectually active is a good way of keeping one’s mind energized.” But, he warns, it’s important not just to do tasks with which one is familiar, but rather, “Do something that challenges you anew.” Kandel notes that “we become so good at what we do, that it is no longer a major challenge for the brain to learn higher order mathematics if you are a mathematician, or neurobiology if you’re a neurobiologist like myself.” The advantage of the American liberal arts education is that later on in life, if people have been exposed to a wide range of interests, it will be easier for them to pick up other intellectual pursuits that once attracted their attention but dropped by the wayside in the helter skelter of one’s professional life.” Kandel himself was introduced to the “magic of looking at pictures” as a young boy in Vienna, and he carries that passion for art appreciation and collecting to this day.
Does Kandel, an early risk-taker in his study of invertebrates, urge today’s young scientists to follow his lead? “In retrospect, my work was a bit of a gamble,” he concedes. “But it would probably be suicidal to do that today when funding is limited and the structure of science is more rigid.”
Summing up his incomparable career, Dr. Eric Kandel says modestly, “Everyone who has had a fortunate career, like myself, thinks that luck has played an amazing role in it.” Though some might quibble with his definition of “luck”, Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel has certainly paved the way for generations of scientists and everyday learners.#