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Neuroscientist & Author Carl Schoonover's Campus Visit

Neuroscientist Carl Schoonover, a researcher at Columbia University and author of Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century, gave an evening presentation and met with students interested in science and writing during his campus visit November 6–7.

Mr. Schoonover's research at Columbia focuses on how the brain interprets and remembers smell, and his book reflects his passion for examining the evolution of how people have studied the brain through many centuries. In Portraits of the Mind, Carl presents a visual and descriptive history of brain images, from rudimentary medieval drawings to highly-magnified, detailed images using modern neuroscience tools and techniques.

During his Monday evening presentation in Gilchrist Auditorium, Mr. Schoonover said that although scientists have been trying to map brain pathways for more than 1,000 years, there is still much we don't know about how information is processed in the brains of humans and even in other, less complex animals.

"The brain doesn't reveal a lot of its secrets," Mr. Schoonover said. It appears as an "undifferentiated lump" that has inspired scientists to try to deconstruct it in order to understand how it works.

Through a visual presentation, Mr. Schoonover demonstrated the centuries-old crossover of art and science in the study of the brain, beginning in the 15th century with Leonardo DaVinci and continuing with collaborations between Andreas Vesalius and Titian in the 16th century and Christopher Wren and Thomas Willis in the 17th century. The slideshow concluded with photos from 2007 showing in great detail the beauty and complexity of brain cells as seen through an electron microscope, and photos from a "brainbow," a mapping of hundreds of mouse brain pathways individually "stained" with a distinct color using fluorescent proteins.

Mr. Schoonover also discussed the contributions to the field by Italian physician and scientist Camillo Golgi and Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who presented a detailed neural circuitry in the brain using Golgi's method of staining cells to view under a microscope. He also credited the Zeiss lens company for developing high-powered lenses for microscopes and cameras.

On Tuesday, Mr. Schoonover met with students and faculty involved with writing initiatives at Loomis and spoke about the importance of writing in helping a broad audience understand what scientists are learning in their research. Respectful of the inter-connectedness of science and the humanities, Mr. Schoonover is the co-founder of NeuWrite, an alliance of scientists, writers, and producers of film and broadcast media whose mission is to develop novel strategies to communicate about science to a general audience.

Communicating the scientific findings and interpreting the implications of those findings requires the collaboration of both the science and humanities, Mr. Schoonover said. There needs to be room for "a voice from science in public discourse, or someone else — like politicians or the media — will fill the void," he cautioned.

At both sessions, Mr. Schoonover answered questions about neuroscience and the brain, his particular field of study at Columbia University, the ethics involved in studying the brains of humans and other species, techniques and best practices in writing about science, and other topics.

Mr. Schooner earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Harvard College and a doctorate from Columbia University, where he is a post-doctoral fellow. In addition to Portraits of the Mind, Mr. Schoonover's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Le Figaro, and Scientific American. He hosts a classical music radio program on WKCR in New York City, where he resides.

Mr. Schoonover's visit was made possible with support from the Hubbard Speakers Series, a gift of Robert P. Hubbard '47.
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