Growing Up Female

by Avis H. Cohen

September 9th, 2000

    Snapshots of growing up female in the Ď40ís, Ď50s and beyond - born Avis Hope Schulner, November 29, 1941, just before the start of WWII. Sent to finishing school for unfinished girls; joined Future Nurses of America; told "Donít be too smart, the boys wonít like you!"; won the Sons of the American Revolution award - but a problem, I was Jewish! Oh well, nevermind, after the teachers argued with them. Being groped in the darkroom, being groped in the library. Married at 19; pregnant at 22; mother of two at 26. Onto the "sixties"! The Vietnam War, anti-war demonstrations; joined SDS; was a full-time mom, taking the kids to demonstrations.... Then off the walls with no more wars to fight. Books described how women, careers, marriage and family didnít go together; you couldnít do all of them, could you? Through a Danforth Fellowship for women who went back to school, and meeting the emerging feminists - maybe I could?? WHY NOT?? At least I could try... and I did - but couldnít of done it without Mika Salpeter as a role-model and supporter when other women, including my mother, said Iíd destroy my children and marriage - and my sons are great, now 35 and 32, and a 14 year old grandson, and marriage going well after 39 years together.... YES!!

    I began my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago in 1959, and met biopsychology and the ethologists of America of the time. Eckhard Hess was there, and I learned all about Lorenz and his geese and how chicks imprinted. From Ted Schaefer, my mentor and boss, I learned all about the psychobiology of stress. Ted and I also discussed the reasons why ethology was having such difficulty gaining a foothold in this country in the Ď50s. The fear of the Naziís was still very strong. The notion that behavior was genetically determined, and therefore, perhaps racially specified, was a hard sell to a nation that had won the war against such doctrines. There were even non-native explanations for pecking in chicks - for example, the head was bobbing on the heart, providing a teaching signal for the movement. Most importantly, I was caught by the intellectual excitement in the College of the University of Chicago, and began to understand the joy of the intellectual life. I was also exposed to discovery and experimentation in a research laboratory. I was on my way to an academic life with biology as the major focus.

    I left Chicago after two years, to continue my education while joining my new husband, Marshall Cohen, a math graduate student, at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My experience with rats at Chicago got me a lab job at Michigan, working in a psychology laboratory, implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, and recording their "galvanic skin responses" when they were exposed to surprise stimuli. The work was published, with me as a co-author, but sitting in comparative physiology from William Dawson, I learned that rats had no sweat glands - OOPS! By that time, my former boss in the Psychology Department had also learned this embarrassing fact, but the harm had been done.... Thatís one paper I never referenced or put into my CV. The experience also led me to biology and away from psychology. I worked for a brief time with Don Maynard, who developed the stomoatogastric ganglion preparation for motor systems research. He was very impressive; so impressive, I was afraid of failing him. I left his lab to work with Billy Frye, a gentle southerner who didnít scare me as much. However, Maynard influenced me more than anyone else during those early years before his premature death a few years later. He gave me a glimpse of the power of clear, logical and sometimes complex thinking and helped me to understand and appreciate what constituted overly simplistic thinking and its origins. He also helped me accept that mine was the better variety even when it sometime disagreed with others.

    I claimed my BS at Michigan in 1964, only a year behind schedule, and went home to bear and raise my first son, and accompany my husband to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. In Princeton, I continued my political formation. I joined my first demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and worked like a madwoman for McCarthy, Eugene, that is, only to learn a cynical lesson about American politics as we watched the disastrous Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. The voice of 40% of the party was completely suppressed by the mainstream of the party, and the Johnson/Humphrey supporters prevailed. On the scientific front, I was exposed to a mathematical theory "catastrophe theory," developed by Renť Thom. Unfortunately, the theory was prematurely and loosely applied, causing considerable skepticism about the usefulness of dynamical systems modeling, of which this was an example. However, I was convinced that dynamical systems, if done well, offered a powerful approach to biological phenomena.

    In 1968, my husband accepted a position in the Math Department at Cornell University, where he has been ever since. Off we went again, now with two sons in my full time care. I soon discovered that my view of dynamical systems was shared by a new Professor at Cornell, Neurobiology and Behavior, Eric Lenneberg. Being a full time mom was wearing very thin. I applied to graduate school at Cornell to do a masterís degree with Lenneberg. I had no idea at that time that I would become a full time academic. I thought Iíd be a technician or do such thing as befit a married woman of my generation. However, I was accepted in the PhD program, as Cornell didnít give a MS. Lenneberg assumed I could do anything - but could I? He sent me into development of motor systems, his first love, even though his work mainly centered around language development and aphasia and he knew nothing of modern motor control. He also suggested I apply for a Danforth Fellowship for Women - and I got it. GULP! Now I really had to do it!

    The years at Cornell were most influenced by Lenneberg, and his global thinking, as well as the psychology people including most importantly J.J. and Eleanor Gibson and Ulrich Neisser, soon to be called cognitive psychologists. I also had a wonderful cohort including Helen Neville, another of Ericís students, as well as other notables such as Martha Constantine (-Paton), Peter Narins, Albert Feng and Bruce Land. I learned that psychology was more than some of the thin concepts I had been exposed to earlier, and that biology and psychology could be happily united if done carefully - not easy, but possible. Martha and I read development, and formed our own opinions of the great debate between Paul Weiss and Roger Sperry. One small piece of this debate was to form the basis of my thesis. I wouldnít answer any major (or even minor question) in this realm, but it did lead me into motor systems and control of locomotion. When I presented the results at Neurosciences, Sperry, whose work I challenged, simply responded, "Oh, interesting. I believe it." Weiss, whose work I was closer to, was far more contentious.

    Marshall took a visiting postion, at the University of Michigan for a semester. So, my family and I returned there, where I had the very good fortune to work with Carl Gans. He became my major mentor from that point on, especially as Eric was more and more unable to help me. And finally, when Eric committed suicide, it was Gans, as well as Bob Capranica who took over and guided me through.   During my last year of graduate school, I heard Sten Grillner give a talk about CPGs (central pattern generators). I was stunned. On the basis of Nicholas Bernsteinís early work, Lenneberg had predicted such circuits must exist. He had missed the evidence that they did. However, there was no question that this was to be my new direction.

    In 1977, two children and a husband in tow, I left for Stockholm and the Karolinska Institute. My husband was correct - there was NO topology in Sweden, but he made frequent trips to Germany to stay alive. After two years, Peter Wallťn and I showed that the isolated spinal cord could produce the full swimming motor pattern (to be called "fictive swimming"). However, it took many months of frustrated struggle with electrical stimulation of the spinal tracts, only to accept the idea to use the American lamprey, Ichthyomyzon unicuspis from Carl Rovainen, and the idea of Margaret Poonís to use pharmacological stimulation with excitatory amino acids, e.g., D-glutamate which together worked like a charm.

    In spring of 1979, I returned to Cornell University with no job. The Math Department generously provided me with an office in the basement, while I wrote grant proposals. Over 1980, I maintained an intermittent post-doctoral position with Carl Rovainen at Washington University. He has remained important to me since that time. Back in the Cornell Math Department, I met Philip Holmes, a new faculty member looking for problems to catch his interest, and Richard Rand, an old friend. I explained the difficulty of understanding the coordinating system of the lamprey - almost nothing could destroy it! It clearly showed ascending and descending effects, and was very complicated anatomically. So began a wonderful collaboration. In 1982 we published our first paper on systems of coupled non-linear oscillators, using dynamical systems theory (!). I had returned.

    But mathematicians have half-lives of about 5 years, so in the mid-Ď80s Nancy Kopel and I began talking about coupled oscillators. Over several trips to Boston, she and I developed many ideas, and I spread the gospel of dynamical systems to Eve Marder, who found it easier to work with physicists than mathematicians. Our little lamprey group soon expanded to include Karen Sigvardt, Thelma Williams and, of course, Bard Ermentrout, Nancyís long time collaborator.

    As they say, the rest is history. I stayed at Cornell, again with the help of Mika Salpeter, in my own lab and supported on my own grant to study locomotor control from 1980 to 1990, when University of Maryland made me an offer I couldnít refuse: a tenured position. This time, my kids were fledged and long gone, and my husband maintained his position at Cornell. Since 1990 we have had a commuting marriage with Marshall bearing the brunt of the traveling. Itís difficult and has led to all kinds of important self - discovery, but our marriage is stronger than ever, and we are both happy in our work. Iíll take it!