Illustration by Ben Marder, eLife. Creative Commons Attribution License

Since 1998, neuroscientist Eve Marder at Brandeis University has been writing frank, thoughtful essays about the scientific life, reflecting about topics that range from the lack of female science faculty members to the advantages of using colored chalk, rather than PowerPoint, as a teaching tool.

Marder’s career began more than 40 years ago, at a time when her hopes of being a researcher involved meeting a husband in graduate school in whose laboratory she could one day work. In her essays, published in the journals Current Biology and eLife, she takes the long view and offers a rare peek at the pressures, joys, and frustrations of doing science.

Marder’s most recent essay, “Grandmother elephants,” published in eLife in July, caught my eye because it poses a timely question for biologists who are now equipped with ever-more powerful tools to explore pressing questions about human disease and health. Marder takes a step back from breathless excitement about progress and the frontier on which human society is now poised to describe an occasional twinge of kinship she feels with “old lady elephants,” whose knowledge and expertise help guide and teach the young ones—maintaining knowledge and tradition in the herd.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Marder describes a tension in science that she feels acutely. Like a lot of people, she thinks we’re at an exciting moment. But she also wonders if the lessons of experience are too often ignored; experiments that have revealed the complexity of biology may be overlooked in the enthusiasm for a more sophisticated tool.

Marder said in an interview that the seed of this idea was planted long ago, but has been sharpened recently, as she is now a member of the “dream team” of scientists working to shape the White House’s initiative to map brain activity.

Marder notes in her essay that when she entered neuroscience, people were trying to “crack circuits,” figure out the cellular mechanisms in the brain that gave rise to behavior. Scientists had cruder tools then, but the quest makes the new brain activity map sound a little like deja vu.

What those previous studies found, she said, was that it wasn’t just a matter of mapping the simple circuits that underpinned a given behavior; there were redundancies built into the way the brain did things, and the brain could also change.

“We learned that circuits are highly interconnected, full of multiple potential pathways by which information can travel, and drastically reconfigured,” Marder wrote. The lesson of those previous studies, Marder says, means scientists may need to be wary of the sometimes simple explanations that emerge when new types of tools are used to probe brain circuits. The tools are more refined, but even the most precise technology can’t leapfrog the fact that the brain’s wiring is more tangled and adaptable than might be convenient.

At the same time, she wonders whether it is inevitable and maybe even appropriate for younger scientists not to pay much heed to the lessons of the past.

“I have been stunned and enthralled by the imagination of some of our best scientists as they dream up fantastic new and innovative ways to study brain circuits. The time for the future is now, and it is hard to be anything but enthusiastic,” she wrote. “At the same time, I feel like a grandmother elephant trying to warn the young that some of the water holes they are moving towards may be mirages or surrounded by quicksand.”

What’s the response been like? Marder said she has received some kind e-mails from colleagues of her generation, professing they are grandfather elephants. Others have made jokes about the inhabitants of the scientific jungle. One man, she said, wrote back with a whimsical question: “What about the hippopotami?”