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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

From physics to neuroscience

The Times has a nice interview with one of my former Caltech classmates, Princeton neuroscientist Sam Wang.

I can remember that even back in the 1980s there was a debate among the most ambitious students whether one should pursue math, theoretical physics or biology (typically molecular biology). This was true not only at Caltech, but at the various science camps I attended as a kid. A lot of "in the know" kids were already turning toward molecular biology as ripe for revolutionary progress (they were right!). I recall a few super ambitious characters at Caltech who tried to keep up with two or more subjects as long as they could. One guy we called "library back" carried a huge backpack around filled with books, and tried to keep up with both molecular biology and physics, finally succumbing to advanced quantum mechanics (I don't think he was able to get beyond the elementary course in the subject). My interest in pure math waned after an encounter with analyst Tom Wolff (math 108, freshman year -- he was a dedicated instructor, but I got a little too much exposure to a world-class analyst!), my interest in academic computer science dissipated after taking a course on AI (a subject I had a long interest in, but it was clear to me how distant the goal) and it was obvious to me that the Rube Goldberg mechanisms of biology were too complex and arbitrary for my tastes (I even find the Standard Model to be an ugly kluge!).

I seem to remember Sam as primarily a physics major, and I think he went on to graduate school at Stanford to study physics (or maybe biophysics), but he may have been a double major all along. It's great to see that he's making an impact in neuroscience! (The article doesn't mention his interest in election forecasting -- I guess NYTimes readers' heads would explode :-)

Q. ... WHY DID YOU BECOME A NEUROSCIENTIST?

A. I was at Caltech in 1985, and I took a class in classical mechanics and another in introductory cell biology. And I remember asking this physics instructor about second order corrections in Lagrangian dynamics. He said, “Oh yes, that’s been thought of,” while spewing out a bunch of equations on the blackboard. I then asked my biology instructor a question about neurotransmission. He kind of smirked at me and said, “Nobody knows the answer to that.”

That felt great! It was great to ask a basic question and learn the answer wasn’t known. So neuroscience seemed like the way to go.

...

Q. GOING BACK TO YOUR YOUTHFUL DECISION TO ABANDON PHYSICS AND TAKE UP NEUROSCIENCE: ANY REGRETS?

A. Never. My parents, who were immigrants, didn’t understand it at the time. My father’s proud of me now. But my mother really wanted me to be an M.D. Even after I got a Ph.D., she still wanted that. She once sent me a brochure about a medical school in the Caribbean where I could become an M.D. in a year. My mother died a few years ago. I cannot remember ever being able to adequately explain to her what I do. That has a little to do with why I wrote, “Welcome to Your Brain.” I wanted to show how neuroscience speaks to everyday life.

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