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The Making of a Bat-Man

The Making of a Bat-Man
For more than 35 years, neurobiologist George Pollak has been using echolocating bats to study the mammalian auditory system, trying to understand how the auditory system processes communication signals and how animals are able to associate a sound with its location in space.

He’s done groundbreaking work in, among other areas, decoding the meaning of complex “love songs” that male bats use to woo females. I sat down with Pollak recently and asked him how he got interested in the brain in the first place, and how he ended up using bats to study it.

When did you realize that you wanted to spend your life studying the brain?
George Pollak: Well, I was a poor student in high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But my freshman year at American University, in D.C.—which wasn’t a science school at all—I took a course in general psychology. I had more boring courses, but this one wasn’t all that interesting until I read a chapter in our text on the biological basis of behavior. I read about experiments on animals where they’d destroy one part of the brain and the animals became incredibly aggressive. Or they’d destroy another part of the brain and they would overeat until they because enormously obese. When I read that, it was like an epiphany.

It told me that all of those things roiling inside of me, all these appetites and feelings, whether they’re sexual, aggressive or hateful or whatever—are nothing more than a product of the activity in my brain. Your brain is determining you. It was the most interesting thing I’d ever heard. I knew immediately that this, the study of the brain and how it works, is what I wanted to do with my life. I gave no thought to what kind of salaries there were, or what kinds of opportunities there were. That’s what I had to do, period, and that’s the course I set for myself.

So did you major in biology?
I majored in psychology. I didn’t know I was supposed to major in biology. But I had to make my own curriculum, in which I took a lot of biology courses. Really, I designed my own major, because no one else at American University was studying these things.

Did you go to graduate school in biology?
At first, I was in psychology, but again, I basically made my own way. I was at the Psychology Department at the University of Maryland, and I took some courses at the medical school in Baltimore, and I did that for a little while, but soon I realized that I needed some research experience. So I went out to the medical school and spoke to the chair of the physiology department, and said I needed a research experience.  They were looking for graduate students, and right there on the spot, the chairman offered me a scholarship. So I took it.

How was that experience?
I had a hard time, because the person I worked with was an electrical engineer, and we didn’t get along very well. What I wanted to learn was how to think conceptually about the nervous system, and my advisor didn’t think that way at all. He was an engineer. He thought technically. What I learned from my thesis was how not to do research, which was actually very valuable.

Did you study bats at Maryland?
No. My thesis was on the auditory system, but not in bats. I did have one encounter, though, that stayed with me, and that had something to do with my later involvement with bats. I took a seminar in auditory neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, and one week we read this series of article on the cortex, and one of the articles was on bats. One of the professors commented, and I’ll never forget this, “I like this article, and let me tell you why I like it. When you study a sensory system”, he said, “you have to know what stimuli that system is designed to process, but the model organism in the auditory system, for historical reasons, has been cats. Yet nobody knows what a cat is really listening to, so you don’t really know how to probe its system, and ask the right questions. With bats, however, you know what they’re listening to. It’s their echolocation calls, and that gives you enormous advantages.”

So what then? How did you get involved in studying bats?
When I got to Yale, where I did a post-doc, I wasn’t intending to study bats at all. I was there to study the parts of the brain that control emotional behavior, but two things happened. Right when I got there, the person whose lab I was supposed to work in told me that he was leaving for a sabbatical year in London. So although I began working in his lab, I wasn’t very tied to it. The other thing was that I got frustrated with the nature of the system. We could describe the circuitry involved in emotional behavior, and we could control it with precision—if we do this to the circuitry, we get this behavior, and if we do that to the circuitry, we get that behavior—but we couldn’t understand how the circuitry produced the behavior. The behavior was much too complicated for us to understand what the circuitry was doing

It brought me back to the auditory system, which is simpler, and I started talking to a faculty member at Yale who was working with bats. I remembered the discussion at Hopkins, and I thought, maybe this is the way to study the auditory system. So I asked if  I could join his lab, and he said yes. I wrote to my advisor in London, and he was okay with that arrangement. So that’s what I did.

How did that work out?
It was the best thing I ever did, joining his lab. The first project I worked on resulted in an article in Science with a picture of the bats we worked with on the cover of that issue. The research was really my advisor’s idea, but he was generous with the credit. I can’t tell you what a cover picture in Science does for your career. It was a beautiful article, a wonderful article, and that’s what got me the job here.
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Saturday, 18 November 2017

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