Risk and Pleasure by Larry Cohen

Most scientists start their careers along a particular scientific path and will stay in that path until the end. In some fields one can be reasonably certain that this path will bear fruit; if not in one's own laboratory, at least in other laboratories pursuing the same subject.

Not true in systems neuroscience. This field is so primitive, and the brain apparently so complex, that it may be generations or centuries before it is known whether a chosen path was fruitful. The risk of devoting one's life to a dead end does lend excitement to the choice.

I have developed optical methods for monitoring neuron activity because these methods lend themselves to multiple-site recordings and it seemed to me that multiple-site recordings would be essential to working out how brains generate behaviors. In the 25 years since we started, there has been progress. One can now monitor the action potential activity of about 500 neurons in an invertebrate ganglion during the generation of behaviors. Recently we have turned to using similar technology to monitor population activity in the olfactory system. Because there is substantial support in the neuroscience community for this research direction, my career is doing fine. Nonetheless the risk remains that it will be useless.

Most scientists will never move from the institution of their first academic appointment, or they move once. Another gamble. I was fortunate to come to a department where the senior faculty took care of the junior faculty. They provided an atmosphere and opportunity to do the best we could as scientists. This supportive and encouraging feeling still pervades. Everyone hopes that each individual in the department will do science that will make us all feel proud.

The mixture of risk and encouragement has made for a great career.