Jump-Starting Your Research (Literally)
By Luke Hallum
Professor Hallum was a kind-hearted, below-average neuroscientist. He always enjoyed an opportunity to elaborate, especially when students asked “When did you know you wanted to be a neuroscientist?” None of his students had ever asked this question, not exactly. But the professor was inclined to reword students’ questions to his liking. And so he found himself being asked this exact question about twice a week. He liked to think his answer was both entertaining and self-effacing. But, much like his career as a neuroscientist, it was simply long and undistinguished.
It was a stormy night, the professor would begin. A lightning bolt flashed over the University of New South Wales where two first-year Ph.D. students toiled over an anesthetized sheep. These two engineers—one of whom was a younger version of our professor—had been assigned by their dissertation advisor a lofty goal: to image how the sheep brain responds to electrical stimulation of the sheep retina. It was an unusual task for these two, who were more accustomed to the humdrum of electronics than the thrill of a somnolent ovine. But in recent weeks (actually, weeks upon weeks) they had designed and built a brain-imaging apparatus! And on this stormy night all was going to plan. They had hooked up to the sheep’s brain activity, and now needed only to wrangle it ashore—or into the computer, as it were— like fishermen wrangling a giant marlin. But as the clock struck midnight, the marks of their success began to fade. Literally.
Their apparatus was almost flawlessly conceived. (“Almost” being the operative word.) The central piece was a “deep-cycle marine battery”—an overgrown car battery for a boat that spends weeks upon weeks out at sea. That marine battery powered the entire enterprise—the lights, the camera, the data acquisition. Indeed, it powered almost everything, except the sheep itself. But after weeks upon weeks of testing, the battery’s not-so-slow decline had begun. Our young professor, realizing that recharging the battery would take too long—the experiment would be sunk—had a creative and lateral thought (possibly his first and only): The Neuroscience Department pickup truck! Surely its battery would not be missed for a few short hours. Under the cover of darkness, he stole through the corridors of the department to where he knew the keys were hidden. Ten minutes later he returned, a car battery loosely concealed beneath his dripping-wet lab coat.
Later that morning, with the data marlin safely ashore, the young professor replaced the borrowed car battery. Wrench in hand, key in the ignition: the pickup issued a desperate gasp, and then fell silent. But it didn’t matter. (Nor would the fact that none of the data acquired that night was ever published. Later still, facing his reviewers, he reluctantly conceded that, yes, the brain images did look spurious, and, yes, maybe an errant light source had reflected off a nearby operating microscope, on to the imaged tissue, masquerading as brain activity.) No, it didn’t matter, for he had tasted the thrill of the chase. Now he knew he wanted to be a neuroscientist. And besides, he would never admit to tampering with the pickup.
Luke Hallum is a newly appointed Senior Lecturer at University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering. He already knows where the sheep are, but not yet where the truck’s keys are hidden.