Where would neuroscience be if, rather than sharing scientific knowledge as part of a broader field, disciplines like neurophysiology, neurochemistry, and neuropharmacology still pursued specialized interests?
In this episode of History of SfN: 50th Anniversary, Bernice Grafstein, Vincent and Brooke Astor Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience at Cornell University, Trustee and Vice-President of the Grass Foundation — and the first female president of the Society for Neuroscience — recounts how the formation of the Society for Neuroscience brought together neuroscientists of diverse backgrounds.
History of SfN: 50th Anniversary is a limited series podcast highlighting stories from the history of the Society for Neuroscience, recounting groundbreaking moments in the growth of the Society from the perspectives of current, past, and future leaders.
Alongside her scientific discoveries, Grafstein also offers a look at how SfN’s annual meeting has evolved, how the first Neuroscience Meeting Planner revolutionized the way attendees planned their meeting itineraries, and how that changed again with its digitization.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of the Society for Neuroscience.
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SWANSON: Neuroscientists are explorers, adventurers, boldly posing big questions and working to discover incredible insights about the least understood organ of the human body: the brain. For 50 years the Society for Neuroscience has celebrated these scientists and physicians and provided venues for them to explore together.
We'll discuss the most significant trailblazing moments in the history of SfN with some of our current, past, and future leaders. I'm your host, Dr. Larry Swanson, past president of the Society for Neuroscience and professor of biological sciences and psychology at the University of Southern California.
In this episode, we speak with Dr. Bernice Grafstein. Vincent and Brooke Astor Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience at Cornell University, Trustee and Vice President of the Grass Foundation, and past president of The Society for Neuroscience. Dr. Grafstein has served as SfN treasurer as well as a member of council, and she was the first woman to serve as president of the Society.
Taylor Johnson, SfN's multimedia manager, talks with Dr. Grafstein via phone about the evolution of the annual meeting, the digitization of the meetings itinerary planner, and Dr. Grafstein's time as SfN president.
Be sure to visit neuronline.sfn.org/listen to subscribe to our podcasts and to tune into more of our audio content. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E dot org/listen. Without further ado, Taylor, take it away.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Dr. Swanson. Hi, my name's Taylor Johnson, and joining me today is Dr. Bernice Grafstein, professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Grafstein, welcome.
GRAFSTEIN: Thank you.
JOHNSON: Thank you so much for spending time with us today. Before we get into discussing the annual meeting development and various SfN accomplishments, I was wondering if you could give a bit of a primer of your academic background in core research.
GRAFSTEIN: Well, I received my PhD at McGill university, and at that time I was studying to be an electrophysiologist. My PhD thesis was on what is now called spreading cortical deep polarization. What was then called spreading cortical depression. You can imagine there were lots of jokes about depression and being depressed and so on, and I'm glad that they changed the name. The thesis actually has assumed some importance because it suggested that this phenomenon of depression or obliteration of cortical electrical activity was due to the diffusion of potassium within the extracellular space. And that was quite a novel idea, and it was eventually picked up and was seen to be a mechanism that was important also in the role of glutamate as an excitotoxicity factor.
I had a lot of pushback at that time. People were just very unprepared to accept the idea. But eventually it was accepted, and you can imagine, although I didn't work on that after that, it was really very thrilling to be invited to a meeting on the subject 50 years after my PhD thesis. So it's an idea that I think was important in the history of the cerebral cortex physiology, important also for application to migraine and stroke and traumatic brain injury. So I'm glad to have to have been able to contribute in that way.
Then I went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship in England, came back to McGill for a while, and then went to Rockefeller University. And that marked a real departure in my career because I became interested in nervous system injury and development. It's hard to believe now this is one of the most prominent areas of research in neuroscience. At that time there was very, very little going on in that area, particularly in development. Very few people were involved in development research, and that of course as burgeoned into a great field.
My contribution that's most important, I think, in that area was in studying the movement of materials from cell body to axonal terminations, the so-called axonal transport. And that work was very important in establishing the fact that there were some significant substances that were moved at a very rapid rate. The so-called fast axonal transport. That work that I did with Bruce McEwen became well-known in the field, establishing what it was, the kind of thing moved by fast transport and its differentiation from slow transport, which involved a whole other kind of materials in the nerve cell.
Another contribution which also seems to be surviving is the introduction of the concept of the conditioning lesion in nerve regeneration. The idea that a nerve that was previously injured was then capable when it was injured again of regenerating even better. And this so-called conditioning lesion paradigm is still useful in research on nervous system regeneration and repair. So I think those three contributions are very significant as milestones in my career.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. And when did you join Cornell?
GRAFSTEIN: Oh, it's a long time ago. I've been at Cornell for a very long time. I've had a very satisfactory relationship with Cornell. Can I say 50 years? It's been that long. There never seemed to be any reason really to leave.
JOHNSON: And so does that sort of correspond with the beginning of the Society?
GRAFSTEIN: I'm trying to think. Yes, that's right. I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's just about right. Yes, 50 years. 50 years at Cornell, 50 years of the Society for Neuroscience.
JOHNSON: Wow. So you joined as a professor. Sorry, you joined the Society already as a professor at the beginning of the Society for Neuroscience. I guess you were there for the first annual meeting.
GRAFSTEIN: I was there for first annual meeting. I was there for the pre-meeting the year before when we first heard about the possibility of a Society for Neuroscience.
JOHNSON: What was that like, even at that pre-meeting, just to be there at the very beginning of the Society that is now celebrating its 50th anniversary?
GRAFSTEIN: Well, I have to tell you that it was kind of puzzling because of the idea of neuroscience was kind of new and different. It's hard to believe that now, but before that there was neurophysiology, there was neurochemistry, there was neuropharmacology. There were all these separate areas that had their own interests and went in various directions, particularly according to the techniques that were involved. So the idea of bringing this all together into a single entity, it was kind of peculiar at the time.
JOHNSON: Well, I believe in your autobiography you said that you weren't always a neuroscientist, but you started out as a neurophysiologist.
GRAFSTEIN: That's right. Yes. I was using certain tools, and I was associated with a certain community that shared those tools and shared those concepts. And suddenly emerging into the broader view of study of the nervous system as a whole was really quite thrilling.
JOHNSON: So when we look then at the first annual meeting for the Society, which I believe was actually in Washington DC, what was that like, this first annual meeting, that again, has gone on for quite some time after?
GRAFSTEIN: Yes. Well, it was interesting. It involves a group of people who, I guess, some of them at least knew one another quite well. We used to meet at the American Physiological Society meeting in Atlantic City. We would be meeting in somebody's hotel room on a Sunday night before the, what was it called? The Federation of American Societies in Experimental Biology, I think is the correct title. And so we would meet in somebody's hotel room and talk about neurophysiology. And suddenly here we were, greeting people who we knew about that really hadn't been part of our neurophysiology community. It was a small enough meeting that most of us could go to a presentation at the theater together. It was the event that we could all sign up for. I'm not sure everybody went, but the idea that we were able to to do that together I think was very important.
JOHNSON: Were there any particular experiences from that first meeting, from the first meeting, that were especially important to you?
GRAFSTEIN: I'm trying to remember whether I gave the public lecture at that meeting or the next meeting. I don't know. It's probably in the archive someplace where I gave a quick lecture. And in those days it was indeed supposed to be a lecture open to the public, and the public was encouraged to attend. My address was on axonal transport. I called it the... What was it called? The Life of the Nerve Cell.
JOHNSON: The Inner Life of the Nerve Cell, I believe. Right?
GRAFSTEIN: Was that at the first meeting? You may know better than I do. I don't quite—
JOHNSON: I believe so.
JOHNSON: It was an interesting story reading about that, because it seemed to be very well received. The New York Times did a piece on it, and you wrote that your mother made a comment that they did not include a picture of you.
GRAFSTEIN: That's right. She was very disappointed. Didn't think it was worth much because there was no picture.
JOHNSON: So in that symposium, so that was to the public? That was a public lecture?
GRAFSTEIN: Yes, yes. I don't know how much public there was. There was a very good audience, but I'm not sure that there were many people without some kind of neuroscience attachment there.
JOHNSON: So moving on from the first meeting, it seems like you joined the Council for the Society almost immediately following, and continued quite a bit of service, of course, leading up to your presidency in 1985. But I was just curious about the progression through your service with the Society, and sort of the changes you saw in the Society as it developed over the first 15 years up to your presidency.
GRAFSTEIN: Well, I don't have really a feeling of continuity in that sense. I was a member of Council, I was treasurer. I did whatever I was asked to do, and when I was asked whether I would run for president, it all came as a big surprise to me.
JOHNSON: In looking at the annual meeting specifically over say those 15 years following the first one and into the one where you were president in 1985–1986, how did you see sort of the meeting change? I mean I know it obviously was growing, but just, I guess, the structure of it. What did you notice as each meeting came and went?
GRAFSTEIN: I don't think there was really a sense of its changing in kind. I'm trying to remember as we speak when a very important change occurred, which was the introduction of posters to the meeting. That has been a tremendous, tremendous change, because obviously it made possible a great expansion of the meeting. Do you have a record of when the posters were introduced? Do you happen to know that?
JOHNSON: I don't happen to know it right in front of me, but I'm trying to think.
GRAFSTEIN: I would think that the introduction of posters, whether it happened before or after my presidency, probably before, really changed the opportunities for young people to present their work. Because until then you had to get a spot in a session, you had 10 minutes to present your paper, and maybe five minutes for discussion afterwards, and it was very difficult to make direct connection with people who might be specifically interested in your work. They might come to your presentation, or they might come to one of several other presentations, they might be elsewhere because of their breadth of interest. And the people you most wanted to talk to maybe weren't there at all. Now, of course, one can choose where to go, the posters that one can go to.
GRAFSTEIN: It was certainly getting bigger, and when I became president, many people spoke to me about the possibility of dividing the Society into separate sections. I guess separate sections for individual neurophysiology, neurochemistry, whatever the old disciplines were. I was very alarmed at that because I thought really important progress was going to be made in terms of bringing everything together. I was very concerned about people talking about, well, the Society is getting way too big and we've got to separate because we can't really encompass, we can't really comprehend what's going on it's so complicated and difficult. And that's when I knew, and I mean, very shortly after I was elected president, I knew that something had to be done.
JOHNSON: You've mentioned animals and research, but what other challenges but also highlights of your presidency come to mind?
GRAFSTEIN: Well, I must say, first of all, that when I became president, I personally didn't regard it as a giant leap for womankind. I was not really focused on the, you might call it the woman problem. That had not been one of the major themes of my career. I did, however, concern myself with it to the extent that, at that time, there was always a presidential symposium. Now there are presidential lectures, but then there was a presidential symposium, and I made a point of having the presidential symposium speakers be all women, and the subject was sexual differentiation. I don't know whether many people noticed. I did. Certainly a few people noticed. But I was trying to make a very subtle, subtle point by doing that. The people who were involved in the symposium certainly were aware of the importance and the newness of the initiatives that was involved in doing that.
JOHNSON: I believe you joked in a footnote in your autobiography that there was a chance this is the first X-rated annual meeting.
GRAFSTEIN: First X-rated symposium.
JOHNSON: First X-rated symposium.
GRAFSTEIN: Okay. There are two things I would like to talk about that I don't think many people know about. One was a political issue. A political issue because the meeting was to be in Washington. The vice president was, if I remember correctly, the first George Bush, and the idea was floated that maybe the vice president might address the meeting. There were very strong feelings about that. There were strong feelings both against, because Bush had been absolutely horrible to Geraldine Ferraro, who had been the Democratic candidate for vice president, and people were very, very opposed to have any kind of association with him. On the other hand, there were the people who said that, well, he's the vice president, and the office itself would make a very important contribution to the meeting.
GRAFSTEIN: It was about even. I polled quite a number of people. As a Canadian, I didn't have a strong view in either direction. I polled a number of people, and about half of them went in one direction, half of them went in the other. And the interesting thing was that subsequently, people kept stopping me and telling me, you know, I changed my mind. But what was really interesting was that about half went in one direction and half went in the other, and we ended up with about 50% in favor and 50% percent against, although it was not necessarily the same people. However, I think I had some very good advice from a former president of the Society who said any issue that is so divisive is not good for the health of the Society. And so we just forgot about that whole idea.
So that was one thing I did. And the other thing that I did that was very important, particularly important in view of all the talk about the meeting is getting too big and too complicated, what I saw was that this could be solved by computer. That it would be possible to have a computerized program that would give each individual a schedule of where they had to be at what time. And it was just obvious to me that this was the way to go. But the problem was I couldn't find any company that would even discuss it with me because they had no idea what this might involve.
I ran a pilot study with about 50 members of the Society thanks to, I got an IT person, and the IT person did understand what I wanted, was able to cobble together a program for me that could be tested. I created a keyword index, which is very important. I created the keyword index, which was useful for many years after that, although the computer aspect had to change. It was only a few years later that we were able to get a commercial, as it happened, a nonprofit commercial outfit to take over the production of what is now the meeting planner.
JOHNSON: So with the neuroscience meeting planner, as we affectionately call it, the NMP, which of course is the gold standard right now, when you proposed this actually, what kind of a reaction did you get? Was everyone for it? Were people skeptical? Just curious about that reception.
GRAFSTEIN: Well, I think of the small number of people who were involved in the pilot program, they all thought it was wonderful. They all thought it was a really great. It was pretty primitive by today's standards, but it was so obviously helpful.
JOHNSON: We've talked about the Neuroscience Meeting Planner, but then moving back a little bit to the annual meeting itself, and in the past 50 years of the Society, how do you feel that the annual meeting has changed over time? Besides, obviously, the growth, but just sort of the various experiences for the people attending?
GRAFSTEIN: Well, I think it's really incredible what one is able to personalize in the experience of the meeting. The choice of activities is really fantastic, and the choice of auxiliary activities, both before and during the meeting, is again, fantastic. The sheer size is one thing, but the idea of being able to prioritize and to select from this huge menu is really quite impressive and very important. Very important particularly for the young people since science actually is becoming very specialized. Very specialized conceptually, very specialized technically. It's very important for people who are developing their careers to be able to home in on the things that they are really most interested in.
JOHNSON: What do you hope the Society might continue to do?
GRAFSTEIN: More of the same. I think it's doing an incredible job. And I want to make the points that the growth of the Society and the multiplicity and the diversity of things that the Society is capable of, particularly the elements on the international scale that we've seen, I think so much of that is due to the foresight and imagination of one person I want to absolutely applaud, and that is Marty Saggese. Marty has been incredible in the development of the Society, and his vision of what the Society could be. You could say he was really sagacious in what he's done for the Society.
JOHNSON: So this is a question that came up earlier, but I haven't really asked it yet. In your opinion, where would neuroscience be if the Society never got together, never happened, didn't exist?
GRAFSTEIN: Well, I think the answer is obvious. I think there'd be a lot of individual societies in neuroscience. There'd be the disciplines we spoke of before. There'd be the neurophysiologists, the neurochemists, the neuropharmacologists, all competing, all treading on each other's toes, because each of these disciplines opens up into all of the others. And I think that there would be a very uncomfortable kind of competition among these various specialized interests.
JOHNSON: Absolutely. Thank you for your answer on that. I was very curious. So honestly, is there anything else that I haven't asked you or that you'd like to discuss?
GRAFSTEIN: There is something I would like to discuss, and it's in some sense, I think of it as a conflict of interest. I am a trustee and the vice president of the Grass Foundation, and I'd like to speak about the role of the Grass Foundation in the development of the Society.
GRAFSTEIN: The Foundation was the first to sponsor a lecture at the Society for Neuroscience. The Foundation also sponsored, subsequently, a program of traveling lectureships, which were very important when the Society was smaller, when the individual chapters were more isolated, when there was no internet for communication. And the traveling fellowships made it possible for distinguished neuroscientists to visit individual chapters and to encourage and enlighten the members. The Society has also benefited from the support of the foundation in some of their international programs, particularly the program in Latin America, and the Society has also supported to some extent the organization called FUN, F-U-N, the organization for undergraduate neuroscience. It has also, by the way, it has endowed the Donald Lindsley Award, another important feature of the Society.
So I think that the interaction of the Foundation with the Society has been very, very important. As a member of the Foundation's board, I can say that we are very proud of the role that we've played in the Society, and continue to play in the Society.
JOHNSON: That's great. It makes sense then how you say that the future of SfN is more of the same of the good stuff. So Dr. Grafstein, thank you very much for spending time with us today.
GRAFSTEIN: Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
SWANSON: Thank you for listening to this episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary, brought to you by the Society for Neuroscience, the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system.
You can hear the rest of this series on iTunes or SoundCloud or by visiting neuronline.sfn.org/listen. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. We'd like to know what you want to hear in future podcasts. Please take a moment and check out the episode description for a survey link. Help us make the content you want to hear. Find out how you can join SfN’s nearly 36,000 members from more than 90 countries by visiting www.SfN.org/join.
For more information about the benefits available to SfN members, visit www.SfN.org/membership. This episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary was written and produced by Jack Lee and Taylor Johnson. Senior producers include Amanda Kimball and Melissa Thompson Ayoub. Music and editing were provided by Human Factor Media. Thank you for tuning in and we'll see you next time.