braiNY Storytelling

On Monday night at Union Hall in Brooklyn, Story Collider and braiNY (the New York celebration of Brain Awareness Week) joined forces for a fabulous night of storytelling. Six people from different walks of life told personal stories that involved something to do with brain awareness. Some stories revolved around disease or trauma (which apparently can stem from dating a philosophy of the mind professor), while others focused on the career twists and turns that led them to be neuroscientists.

Of the latter, we had Mike Nitabach of Yale School of Medicine, and Stuart Firestein of Columbia University. Both dabbled in two professions before ultimately choosing neuroscience as a career. For Nitabach, an associate professor of cellular and molecular physiology and of genetics, neuroscience was not an immediate calling. In fact, he went to college with a legal career in mind. But after an interest in philosophy of the mind (no relation to my previous mention) led him to the biological sciences, he followed that path to graduate school to get his PhD. in neuroscience at Columbia.

In graduate school, Nitabach found the intense research of one “thing” to be a bit stifling. In college you learn about the breadth of the field, he explained, but in grad school, you need to focus on one thing for five years. “And it’s a privilege,” he quipped. He began to think about law again, and when he graduated from Columbia, he signed up for three more years of graduate school—this time law school. After taking the bar and before starting an internship, he visited an old neuroscience graduate school friend at his new lab at New York University. Cue instant lab-envy.


Nitabach pushed back his law firm start date three times to work in his friend’s lab. A few months later, he finally came clean to both the law firm and himself; he was a neuroscientist at heart. Or, in his words, “You know what man? I’m a f—–g neuroscientist.”

Stuart Firestein, chair of Columbia’s Department of Biological Sciences, took a very different path to neuroscience. After high school, he embarked on a theater career for fifteen years before receiving his bachelor’s degree in biology from San Francisco State University (while still working). Firestein (last seen on this blog discussing the value of ignorance) fell into the major after initially being drawn to an animal behavior course at the school.

Believing his bachelor’s degree in biology to be worthless in terms of gaining employment, Firestein applied to graduate school for neuroscience. He was “rejected by several and accepted by a few,” among them Berkeley University, where he began his studies at the age of 35. Unlike Nitabach’s graduate school experience, Firestein enjoyed the apprenticeship aspect that he was familiar with from the theater, and he quickly found himself drawn to olfaction. Though he detoured to a retina-focused lab for a while due to his admiration for the supervisor, curiosity soon lured him back to the study of smell. Firestein admits he actually took advantage of his supervisor’s six-week trip to Tibet, to work on what interested him, but he was lucky that his work impressed the supervisor upon his return, and Firestein was encouraged to pursue his interests. Firestein said that this scenario taught him a valuable lesson: Scientists look at data and mentors stand behind them.

As the event ended, I think all of us in the audience were left with an appreciation for the different experiences and perspectives that neuroscientists bring to their field. We were also left with a deep appreciation for Paula Croxson, who not only connected Story Collider and braiNY for this event, but who also shared a poignant story about her favorite grandmother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s disease, and her eventual interest in studying memory.

Story Collider is one of the many public brain-centric events planned in New York City this week by braiNY. Events coming up include a family lab workshop on brain waves at the American Museum of Natural History, a Moth Story Slam called “Going Sane,” open access to the lab on wheels–BioBus–at Washington Square Park, and a Staying Sharp session at Hunter College where brain experts discuss memory and successful aging. Please join us!

If you’re not in New York and want to look up Brain Awareness Week events your area, please visit our Calendar of Events.

– Ann L. Whitman

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