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Alumni: Alumni Stories
Want to read about the fascinating, heart-pounding and motivational stories of some UP alumni? Then check out the following “Alumni Stories” and get a real taste for some of the adventures of UP alumni.
Linsey Branam, who earned a degree in literature at the University in 2002, is back this year earning a second degree, in nursing, and she kept a diary of her first few days of clinical training. Linsey is also an Army lieutenant in the Montana National Guard.
First day of clinical orientation. Give myself plenty of time to get to hospital. End up completely lost, stuck in traffic, swearing profusely, and cursing everyone who has ever driven or owned a car, including me. Find hospital, race into lobby, discover that my group has left on rounds without me. Consider heading home to
and living the rest of my days a lonely spinster with mom. Go into bathroom and fight back tears. Finally locate a thoughtful receptionist who locates my instructor’s pager number. Meet up with my instructor and she forgives me. Whew. Montana
First day of clinicals. Up at four in the morning. My first patient is a wonderful sweet 85-year-old man who basks in my attention. The perfect first patient. I overhear another nurse say her patient hit her with his cane when she didn’t move fast enough.
Clinicals are making me conscious of my skin. You don’t think about your skin until you are scrubbing someone’s feet because they can’t do it. It’s startling when you first see how transparent skin gets after 85 years.
New client: Mister Howard. Eighty-six years old. Insists on the Mister. No first names here. Gruff. Not eager to please. But when I’m bathing him and he tries to talk to me suddenly he’s not making any sense at all. I wait. It must be me, my ears are off, maybe lack of sleep. But he’s struggling now and making strange noises. Incomplete syllables. “Are you having a hard time talking to me?” I ask finally. He nods. He can’t talk at all now. I run and grab my preceptor and she tests his motor strength. His right side is suddenly radically weak. We pick him up and set him in bed. We call the doctor. I’m suddenly nervous. What’s wrong? Subdural hematoma? Stroke? Mister Howard is whisked away for a CT scan and I quiz the doctor. Mister Howard is just very old, he says. We’ll thin his blood and hold our breaths and watch while he whisks in and out of confusion.
Mister H was better today, still very weak but he could speak. He winked a lot. It’s our shared secret. The physical therapist comes in and talks very loudly and treats him like he’s suffering from dementia. I look at him and smile. He winks.
Next day I help him with his lunch. His motor function today is much worse. I feed him most of his meals but let him finish up the last little bits himself for practice. For him to feed himself is a real effort. Today we learn that Mister Howard will be sent to a nursing home. It breaks my heart. I understand that the level of care he requires is now too great for his daughter but I know he will deteriorate quickly there. I say goodbye and good luck and he looks me straight in the eyes and extends his hand and we shake and I have to leave.
This weekend I swear I smelled death from a man with a stroke that left him in a confused catatonic state where his only indication of life was an intact chewing mechanism. His room smelled like the cadavers from anatomy lab. I saw so many wounds there. They carry a sick sweet vinegary smell.
Patient today was a 69-year-old woman in intense pain from broken ribs sustained when she fell dumping coffee grounds into her garden. And she is not allowed food because her spleen bled out and could explode so she’s hungry and in pain but she doesn’t smell like death. She smells like cigarettes. One pack a day and two martinis in the evening, she tells me.
Patient today is Mr.
, age 93. I find his daughter sitting vigil at his bedside. Mr. Kent is a DNR, Do Not Resuscitate, per his own request. His daughter wants invasive surgery if necessary, anything to try and patch him up again. “He may have several more years,” she tells me. I don’t know what to say. His mind is intact but his body is breaking down system by system. I feel ill-equipped to confront her with the reality of his situation. I imagine that I am her and that Mr. Kent is my dad. My eyes well up. Some nurse I’ll be if I drip tears on everyone’s charts. Kent
Client today is a 77-year-old woman who was raped three years ago and has since had a heart attack, pneumonia, septicemia, and finally temporary dementia during which, she tells me, she saw snakes coiled around lights. I read in her chart that four people had to hold her down. She laughs about it now. Her boyfriend is here, 83 years old, has never left her side through all this. She is being discharged to a nursing home today. Eight children, one deceased husband, a rape, she’ll likely spend the rest of her life in the nursing home, but she is still smiling.
Officially named a disease we nursing students have seen from time to time: ADS, Arrogant Doctor Syndrome. Of course not all doctors suffer from this pernicious infection but it does seem rather prevalent...
Last day of this rotation. We met individually with our clinical instructor and preceptor and they evaluated our performance. Funny how when someone you admire tells you that you’ve done well you only want to do better. I planned to come home and write some thoughtful eloquent summary of this experience, some insightful note on education and epiphany and the miracles that people are, people in pain and people healing the pain, but I was so exhausted all I wanted to do was sleep. Instead I lay awake and listened to my heart beat, which now is the most amazing sound of all.
Clamps, saws and orthopedic implants hang from the wall in Larry Ehmke ’01’s office, along with illustrations of the body’s major joints: shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, and ankle.
A research assistant in
’s Legacy Bio-mechanics Laboratory, Ehmke studies better ways to repair injured bones. His first project: researching nails that surgeons insert into broken thighbones (or femurs) to keep them straight and strong during healing. Each year, Portland-area surgeons fix more than 1,000 thighbones this way, but poorly designed femoral nails can cause further damage when doctors insert or remove them. “These devices have been around since the 1940s,” Ehmke says, his hands cradling an obsolete 1964 model with squared sides. “Our job was to find the right shape.” Portland
Ehmke and an orthopedic resident drilled out 21 cadaver femurs, just like surgeons would hollow a living person’s thighbone before inserting a nail. Then they inserted a motion sensor into the reamed-out bones to determine an average curvature. Three companies are now designing nails based on the lab’s data.
Ehmke learned about the lab during Students Meet Industry Day, when U.P. mechanical engineering students shadow working engineers. An avid bicyclist, Ehmke was interested in mixing orthopedic research with his engineering training. He landed an internship at the lab, then a full-time job. He’s been there more than two years.
The learning curve was steep. At first, he couldn’t keep up with the anatomical terms that his coworkers used. He took books and research studies home after work to learn the specialty. He also learned how to dissect cadavers.
“I was hesitant when I heard that word,” Ehmke says. “Now I see that I have a small hand in improving people’s quality of life from an engineering standpoint.”
Steve Gallus ’95 was first elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 1998, the youngest person to serve as a member of the House. He is known as an energetic, engaged representative. In November 2001 he ran for re-election—a young Democrat with liberal views in a traditionally conservative state—and he knew it would be difficult. However, not only did Steve retain his seat in the House, he won the election with a 62-36% margin.
“I have always had an interest in government,” says Gallus. “I have been involved in the Montana Legislature for every bi-annual session since 1991, except for 1995 when I was attending the University of Portland. I served as a page in high school, a delegate aide in college, and was a lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers in 1997. It took some time for me to realize it—and some long discussions with Fr. Art Wheeler— but I discovered that my calling is in public service.”
In fall of 1997, at the age of 25, Gallus decided to run for the Montana House of Representatives. “Many people in my community were concerned about my age and lack of elected experience,” he says now. “We decided early in the campaign the only way to overcome this obstacle was through a demonstration of hard work and energy.” Gallus knocked on 10,000 doors that year, distributed 20,000 pieces of literature, and appeared on television and radio in his bid for office.
Gallus is currently employed as a youth case manager for emotionally disturbed children. “All of my kids are impoverished and most have suffered serious abuse in their lives,” he says. On his return to the House he hopes to address rising energy costs, economic development issues, and the state of public education in Montana. He is also one of a very small group of legislators in Montana who openly oppose the death penalty.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to give back to my community what I learned from the University of Portland. Father Art and others sent me off with a mission that has benefited myself, my community, and the State of Montana.”
Elizabeth Hall jumped at the call for engineers to work in war-torn Afghanistan nearly a year after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. At age 49, Hall was a relatively new employee at the Portland branch of the Army Corps of Engineers. But she felt a pull, a strong urge to repay those who supported her long personal journey leading to a University of Portland degree in electrical engineering.
“I can do this,” she recalls thinking as she sent off her application for the Army corps overseas assignment. Her interest in the job was heightened when she read an article in The Oregonian newspaper about an American woman who had been teaching native Afghan children to read. The woman opted to stay in Afghanistan rather than return to her job in the United States.
“Are you the electrical who said you’d go to Afghanistan?” asked the deputy director of the corps in Portland, just prior to telling Hall she got the job. “Are you crazy?”
“I told him this is my chance to pay back,” Hall said. “How could I not go?”
She owed, among others, the many University of Portland engineering and math professors who never stopped believing in her, who nurtured a stubborn, determined divorced mother of two daughters to accomplish what others tried to discourage. “Why do you want to do this?” a community college instructor once asked her as she struggled to understand the mathematical world of vectors. “Why don’t you just go back home, plant a garden, and smell the roses?” To which Hall replied, “I can’t eat roses.”
Hall felt a particularly strong debt to those who helped pay for her education -- the Ford Family Foundation, University of Portland, American Business Women's Association, and Gresham Chamber of Commerce. She also felt a strong sense of pride in country. “People talk about winning the lottery. I won the lottery. I was born female in the United States.”
Some, however, might suggest that being an American woman was working against her. As a single mother, Hall found herself struggling financially when her 20-year marriage ended in divorce. She had married shortly after graduating from La Salle High School, a private Catholic school in a Portland suburb, and at age 40 was working in a fabric store, dealing with the unpredictable and seasonal world of retail.
Near the time of her divorce, Hall began what turned into a 9-year quest for an engineering degree by taking classes at two local community colleges. She took most pre-engineering math courses at the two-year schools and was appreciative of that opportunity. But once again, she ran into another community college instructor who tried to discourage her early on. “He told me I was wasting my time. I should get out,” she recalls. “I told him to hang tight. I dropped his class because I was out of money and had to apply for scholarships full time.” That’s when she learned of the Ford Family Foundation scholarship, which eventually paid 90 percent of her tuition, allowing her to apply to the University of Portland.
“Community college was only going to take me so far. How many single parents with two kids, living off $15,000 per year, can get in the engineering program? I still had to make my house payments, make my grocery money, and pay for car repairs, gas. I worked part time. I cleaned houses. I scrubbed toilets. I did whatever I could to generate some cash flow, babysat, mending clothes. I graded papers at the University.”
Hall learned to “redefine” the difference between needs and wants. “I didn’t eat ketchup, sugar, and salt. I wanted those condiments, but I didn’t need them. I didn’t need red meat.”
Hall’s perseverance continued at the University of Portland, although she hit a stumbling block when she showed up for her first computer programming class, taught by Lewis Lum, chair of the mathematics department. Hall often had helped her daughter type on a computer at home, but knew next to nothing about operating computers. She became so frustrated after the first lecture that she filled out a drop slip for Lum’s class and brought the form to his office.
But Lum refused to sign her drop slip, knowing that the class was required for her engineering degree. Instead, he told her, “If you’re willing to work hard, I’ll work with you.”
“I made more trips to his office,” she said of Lum. “He was my savior. I spent a lot of time pacing in his office, foaming and ventilating. He wouldn’t let me quit. No matter how bad it was some days, and believe me, it was pretty bad. There were days when I was ready for tears and ready to walk out.”
Hall has a long list of University of Portland engineering professors she is indebted to. “Without doctors (Lewis) Lum, (Aziz) Inan, (Syed) Sarwar and (Jeff) Hoffbeck supporting me and saying be patient, I don’t think I would have made it. The words they used to describe me were stubborn, tenacious and perseverance.”
Hall’s elder daughter was attending University of Puget Sound when Hall enrolled at University of Portland in the fall of 1996. Her younger daughter, meanwhile, suffered the most, according to Hall. “She knew that you didn’t talk to me unless it was bleeding or on fire. If I was home, I was studying or sleeping. She became a voracious reader.”
Hall was the last of seven siblings to get her college degree. Two of her brothers and a brother-in-law are engineers and gave her support throughout her experience at University of Portland. In May 2000, when Hall walked on the stage in the Chiles Center to receive her degree, she looked down and saw her mother who was sitting close by in a wheelchair. Four years earlier, Hall was driving along Portsmouth Avenue with her youngest daughter at the start of her University experience. She drove past the sign outside the Chiles Center that read, “Welcome to UP,” and cried. Now, with tears in her eyes again, she walked past her mother and proudly flashed her diploma. “Now all seven have a degree,” she called out.
Two and a half years later, Hall, who turned 50 in Afghanistan, was living out of a duffle bag, sleeping in canvas tents with as many as 11 other women, all of who were serving in the military. During her first few days overseas she was briefed about poisonous scorpions and snakes and how to negotiate in a minefield. She was assigned to a military base, where she helped redesign an electrical grid system to ensure power for communications between headquarters and troops in the field. She also worked on airfield runway lights and generators -- the only sources of power for other bases.
In excerpts from her e-mails to her oldest daughter back home, Hall described some of the living conditions she was facing overseas:
“If you have not sent a package to me yet, would you be so kind as to include: a scarf to cover my face. The dust is unbelievable. Lotion. My hands are very dry and I am using oil four times a day. A pumice stone as my boots are killing my feet.”
She later writes about how good it was to talk with her daughter by telephone: “I was feeling a bit down and hearing your voice and having conversation with a normal person was good therapy.” She then made requests for more items: “flannel shirt, envelopes for mail, photos of family and fun, mirror to hang up and see how bad I look, sunglasses, nose spray, dry due to climate and nose bleeds, hair scrunchies, mole cloth (I have too many blisters to deal with), toilet paper, jogging suit in closet.”
The few times that Hall left the military bases in Afghanistan, she was part of a convoy, with a minimum of three vehicles, each with two to four armed soldiers. “I wasn’t allowed to have a weapon, so a soldier would have to be in my car with a weapon.”
She returned home from Afghanistan on March 28, 2003, and a few weeks later was sent to Iraq shortly after President Bush declared an end to heavy combat there, arriving in Baghdad on May 11. "I remember at the Saddam International Airport you could still smell death, and see blood in areas. Buildings were still smoking."
Religion played an important role in her day-to-day life overseas. A Catholic who attends services at St. Henry Church in Gresham, Hall recalls the unusual images of attending mass in Afghanistan, watching soldiers armed with weapons and singing a cappella, while the priests wore camouflage.
“It was a service from the heart,” she said of each mass. “The homilies were very inspiring. I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing mass over there.”
Hall eventually got use to the hardships overseas and quickly learned to adapt, like the time she collected wood from military dumpsites, to build crude furniture for their tents. She managed to find a soldier who had a power saw, and soon Hall was creating shelves, desks and night stands for herself and her roommates. Her neighbors referred to her living quarters as “the Taj Mahal of tents.”
She generally felt safe during her overseas work, although a missile once landed about 200 yards from her tent, and she was immediately escorted to a bunker. She also recalls the time she was traveling in a military plane approaching an Iraqi airport when a missile was shot at another incoming plane.
Her first return to the United States after more than five months in Afghanistan was a major adjustment for Hall. “I landed in Atlanta at 11 a.m. on a Friday morning. I was overwhelmed. There were so many people. Television monitors were blaring. People’s cell phones were ringing. People’s pagers were beeping. The airlines were making announcements. People were hustling. There was so much color. It felt like I had stepped into the Twilight Zone.”
Little things like having soap in the soap dispenser at the airport dazzled her, as did later the food supplies in grocery store. “In Afghanistan, you never had all the pieces working. We showered in tents. Maybe you had electricity. Maybe you had heat. There were only a couple of times when you had hot water, lights, heat and a showerhead.”
Hall returned home and to her job in Portland with the Army Corps of Engineers, still grateful for the opportunities opened to her.
Asked for advice to other women who may want to return to school and pursue a degree in engineering as she did: “It’s not that daunting. It’s doable. I never felt diminished or dismissed because I was female. Women multi-task all the time. But you have to want it.”
As for whether she would return to Afghanistan or another overseas assignment: “You bet.”
He's a brain expert. He's a medical inventor. He's a software developer. He's an expert in children's hearing. He's "a cross between Santa Claus and a mad scientist." He's Mike Merzenich '64, and he's out to change the world.
The most powerful, most staggeringly complex electro-biochemical machine ever created is all in your head. Above and behind your eyes are ten billion neurons in a small calcium shell, laced with organic pumps and channels and switches; wiring and plumbing so dense and complicated that even this over-achieving organ - which looks like nothing so much as three pounds of ground chuck gone way past its prime --even your brain can barely imagine itself.
Consider the paragraph you've just read. Simply ink marks on the page; and yet your brain has already processed and given meaning to a flow of visual input from your optic nerve, found the learned and remembered shapes of these marks, and created the words and concepts they represent. At the same time, nerve cells in the skin of your fingers and your palms are reporting the cool smoothness of the paper; impulses from the muscles in your arms and shoulders are registering the weight and position of the magazine. Tiny pockets of fluid down the tunnel from your ears are vibrating with background voices, music, noises. Biochemical autopilots are contracting the muscles of your heart, moving your diaphragm, regulating the temperature of your body, cleaning and re-energizing your blood, repairing your dinged-up cells, making your hair grow. Signals go out to the small muscles strapped to the orbs of your eyes, sweeping them back and forth over the chain of letters, stretching and warping the ball for focus.
In short, your brain makes the brawniest
Silicon Valleysupercomputer look like something you'd get in a Happy Meal. And yet right now your brain may not remember exactly where the car keys are: The average person, though master of the exceptionally intricate puzzle of spoken and written language, can hold only seven thoughts in short-term memory. So it goes.
A small group of highly specialized explorers delve this landscape of thousands of millions of cells, where messages are carried along the spidery connections called synapses by a range of chemical compounds, neuron to neuron, spreading like a nasty rumor in a small town. The explorers know that the messages cause minute changes in electrical voltage and polarization inside the cells. In one corner of this bone-bound universe, a certain amino acid is recognized by chemical receptors on certain cells, the molecular currency of calcium ions is exchanged, and learning and memory happen. Study the brain and the scientists who explore it, and eventually you will encounter an affable man who may know more about learning and memory than anyone: Michael Merzenich '64. And don't be surprised if he has a bunch of kids with him.
The world headquarters of Scientific Learning Corporation, on Montgomery Street in San Francisco's financial district, is in pre-moving-day chaos - evidently even the most intimate knowledge of brain function doesn't get a cardboard box filled any faster. Growth is the reason for the mess. After only a few months in business, these offices are already too small.
Everywhere on the beige walls are cartoon red sneakers, motif of Fast For Word, the language-learning software that is the central product of SLC. In the reception area, the jaunty logo runs along the wall, past framed articles from Time, Scientific American, Business Week, Parade, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Science, USA Today, and Discover - all mentioning SLC's breakthrough computer game for kids with language-based learning disorders. A game that, when played on a regular basis for a few short weeks, appears to accomplish what usually takes years of one-on-one human intervention.
Moving through the offices with the same youthful high spirits as the logo are the SLC employees, more than 70 of them now - organized-looking speech therapists, energetic-looking sales and marketing types, hipster-artiste programmers and graphics people - most of them under age 40.
In counterpoint to all this exuberant Bay cool is The Man himself: scientist, SLC founder, boss, Francis A. Sooy Chair of Otolaryngology and Physiology at University of California at San Francisco, the Good Doctor, the Brain Guy: Mike Merzenich (pronounced "Mer-zick"), Ph.D. He is stocky, with big wrists and forearms elbowing out of a short-sleeved shirt. He wears neither tie nor watch. Even though it's a quarter past the crack of dawn and he just returned from
Europethe previous evening, his broad smile floats gently under nondescript glasses. His pants are a dull gray and, of course, he wears blue socks with his black shoes. Let's face it, you'd typecast this guy as The Scientist every time.
He leans back in his chair in the small, half-packed-up corner office and begins to tell his story, this man who is a world-renowned neuroscientist and one of the planet's foremost experts on information processing and learning, this software entrepreneur, this owner of a brain that understands so much about its own inner workings. Behind him, in the lone remaining poster on his wall, Willie Mays makes a running basket catch look so nonchalant that it's hard to imagine those particular neurons ever being bothered by the swirling wind of a summer afternoon in
. Candlestick Park
By the time he was in high school - in
Lebanon, Oregon, in the verdant - the Merzenich family's young son, Mike, solid German Catholic stock, was already showing big talent and lofty aspirations. His academic performance earned him a scholarship from the local factory and his choice of colleges, but his great interest in religion and ethics led him to the state's only Catholic university. He arrived on The Bluff in 1960, dug eagerly into philosophy, literature, religion and ideas. From the beginning he knew he had made an inspired and fortuitous choice. Willamette Valley
He was on course to become a physician when he met an endearingly eccentric and warm-hearted professor named Blondel Carlton. From exposure to this "prototypical science nerd" (Merzenich's affectionate description) a new love was born: pure science, and fundamental research into the mechanisms of the brain. From the vantage point of thirty-some years, Merzenich can still remember the sea change.
"Through Professor Carlton and one or two other mentors on The Bluff," he says, "I gradually came to realize that pursuing scientific knowledge in its purest sense was what seemed right for me. What a happy accident that these wonderful teachers were able to see something in me that I hadn't yet seen! I became absorbed in studying and understanding the higher functions of the brain in a practical, experimental way. That led me to the field of neuroscience - but I never felt that I left behind my interest in religion and ethics and the greater issues of humankind, which I believe are directly linked to the workings of the brain. To this day I still call myself an 'applied philosopher.'"
Technical difficulties on an undergraduate nerve-signal recording experiment led to the next happy accident. A cold call to what was then the University of Oregon Medical School (now
) produced an invitation to visit "Pill Hill" for a little technical assistance. Merzenich was introduced to a scientist on the Hill who very generously and at some length showed the young researcher what he might be doing wrong. Far from shy, and bolstered by an open invitation, Merzenich returned several times to learn from this man, who certainly seemed to know his stuff. Mike toured the labs, watched the research in progress - eventually learning that his new friend was none other than the chairman of the department, the president of the American Physiological Society, the editor of the prestigious Journal of Neurophysiology, and one of the most celebrated neuroscientists in America: John Brookhart, M.D. "Dr. Brookhart was amazingly and improbably kind to me," Merzenich remembers. "He would always stop what he was doing to speak to me, and gave me far more time than I probably deserved. It was one of the many wonderful accidents in my life. I often ask myself if I would act so kindly and spend so much time with a young person had I been in his position. I remind myself of his thoughtfulness and generosity when I get very busy and prone to say no." Oregon Health Sciences University
Merzenich still didn't fully understand Brookhart's eminence until the
's 1964 valedictorian was about to graduate. Universityof Portland
"Mike, where do you want to go to graduate school?" Dr. Brookhart asked one day.
"I thought maybe Johns Hopkins or Harvard."
"Okay," Brookhart said. He picked up the phone and called both schools; both accepted Merzenich's application immediately.
Merzenich chose Johns Hopkins, earned his Ph.D. in neurophysiology in 1968 and completed a fellowship in sensory physiology in 1971. And in the grainy shadows of every late night in the library or the lab he would sense the presence of the men who had helped him find his profession, his avocation, his art - Professors Carlton and Brookhart. Mike Merzenich never forgot how much influence a single person can have on education, on potential, on hopes.
The elegant organic machine that is the brain creates itself in the very act of performing its functions. Each moment of interaction with the world changes the machine in subtle ways, releasing new abilities, shaping new possibilities. A baby starts with the most feeble ability to move and to communicate, and for most children there is a seamless progression to crawling and walking and talking and running - eventually to playing basketball and speaking many languages and playing the piano and painting seascapes and doing the Times crossword in ink. This rewiring and reinventing of the machine by the machine is endless and ageless - even though the human brain loses 10 percent of its mass by age 70. The capacity of the brain to learn and remember and re-engineer itself - to create meaning from input - is called plasticity, and much of what the world knows about plasticity came from Mike Merzenich.
"The cornerstone of my interest as a scientist has always been the same," he says. "Understanding how information is processed in the brain, and how that information is then elaborated in the areas of the brain that create capacities for reasoning and remembering."
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Merzenich and the colleagues in his laboratory at UCSF were among the first to conduct substantial experiments demonstrating how the brain changed physiologically when it learned something new - and how experience changed the brain's response to stimuli. What they learned was a lesson in both exquisite simplicity and awe-inspiring complexity.
At any point in time, your brain is receiving a torrent of information, provided without editing or comment by your five senses. This information is complicated and continually changing. Some of it is important, some of it isn't. What it all is, is too much. So your brain samples the flow in small segments - snapshots of the information covering a few thousandths of a second. Each snapshot is clearly represented in the brain, and sharply separated neurologically from the snapshot that follows. But view any two snapshots too closely together in time, and the second snapshot can "mask" what was contained in the first.
"Our brains," Merzenich says, "are continually dealing with rapid, successive input, picking it off piece by piece, analyzing each bit and integrating them across the time horizon. Binding these bits of information over the short term and the long term into constructs that have meaning and value. Underlying all of this is plasticity, the remarkable capacity to change. The capacity of the brain to do things tomorrow that it can't do today."
That capacity, that plasticity, can be accelerated, Merzenich and his colleagues discovered, by progressive training. The ability to perceive, differentiate and process information can be enhanced to a remarkable degree, and the enhancement is accompanied by a corresponding biochemical change in the communication between the neurons themselves. The synaptic response to stimuli actually becomes faster and more synchronous. As soon as Merzenich knew that, he knew what he had to do.
Happy barnyard critters dance around the screen. Follow the commands, make the right choices and they give you a mooing, clucking, barking ovation and your points add up. The next exercise appears, and you mouse your way around a grid, matching symbols with sounds like ba and da and ca and ma, the sounds and commands spoken by the computer in a slow, slightly-clouded way, like an FM radio that's fallen into the bath water. Unknown to you, a computer algorithm is stretching the speech by 50 percent and emphasizing some components by making them louder. This is just one of the many entry-level games in the on-screen world of Fast For Word. At the other end of the scale, at the top levels, the games ask you to differentiate between very similar pictures and find the one that best illustrates a concept like "Touch the picture drawn for the girl." The computer-generated speech at the top level sounds very normal.
These two levels of the game seem far apart, and in reality represent years of progression in language ability. But if you are a language-impaired child who plays the games each day, you'll span the gap between the levels in just one month. That, in a high-tech nutshell, is what Merzenich's company is all about.
The Brain Guy leans forward, looming in a friendly way, and explains his motivation.
"Understanding the plasticity of the brain," he says emphatically, "is a great scientific story and a leap forward-but the real point of the exercise is to bring this knowledge to the point where it has a positive effect on a human life. Knowing what we know isn't worth a damn if we don't bring it into a practical reality."
For most of his early career, that intense drive to jump out of the journal and into the world was centered on the ways in which the brain processes complex sound input and then represents some of that input as speech-and the consequent development of the device called a cochlear implant, now used around the world. Much of the pioneering work on implants occurred in Merzenich's laboratory, as he and his research and engineering colleagues were among the first to realize that it would be possible to artificially represent enough information about speech to allow the brain to complete the input.
Like bumblebee wings, cochlear implants work much better than they should. Although very sophisticated by human engineering standards, the implants, which electrically translate acoustical signals directly into the hearing nerves, are still a crude substitute for the effective, if somewhat fanciful, system of vibrating eardrums, goofy little bones and transmitting fluid that comes as standard equipment for most of us. Yet the plasticity of the brain allows it to turn this less-than-perfect input into understood speech for 80 percent of people with acquired deafness. Remarkably, after a few months' time these people not only understand the new input, they believe it sounds just like it did when they used to hear normally.
That work was probably enough for one scientific career. But then a new opportunity to help people appeared: neuroscientist Merzenich met experimental psychologist Paula Tallal of
. For two decades, Dr. Tallal had been studying children who had normal IQs and yet scored very poorly on oral language tests. Tallal found that these children had trouble differentiating syllables such as ba and da that begin with consonant sounds that last mere milliseconds. The problem wasn't limited to speech sounds; the children had trouble with all sounds that arrived in rapid succession, and even had similar fast-recognition difficulties with other senses including vision and touch. Rutgers University
Tallal determined that the children's brains were unable to process information that flashed by too quickly-remember the "masking" effect-a deficit that would have its most disruptive impact on speech. "In the real world," she says, "we don't have to process much information in the tens of milliseconds range. The exception is speech-many of the critical changes that differentiate one speech sound from another occur within this time window." Further study proved that these language-impaired children could distinguish the consonant sounds if they were doubled in length from 40 to 80 milliseconds. How long is that? It takes about 200 milliseconds to blink an eye.
So we have one scientist who knew that these brains were processing too slowly, and one scientist who knew more than anyone about how to crank up the speed-upon meeting in 1993, the two began a long-term collaboration. Their initial goal was to help the children (about one of every ten) who develop similar forms of language impairment-most of whom go on to develop reading problems symptomatic of dyslexia. For the most part, these deficits are genetic, some inherited quirk in the machinery of learning. There can be other causes, like chronic muffled hearing as the child grows.
But, nature or nurture, Merzenich knew he could train these kids. He and Tallal devised seven carefully patterned language exercises, which were then (with the help of colleagues Steve Miller and William Jenkins) transformed into a series of computer games, complete with modified speech patterns, upbeat animation and lots of rewards for progress. In 1994, the games were tested on children for the first time, and the results were dramatic: gains of as much as two years in language ability achieved in a month. Much of the improvement was maintained several weeks after the training-which suggested that the kids weren't merely learning some tricks to use in the environment of the game, but were actually improving their understanding of language.
A second, larger test group followed in the summer of 1995, and the same unprecedented results were produced. The researchers published these findings in the prestigious journal Science (January, 1996). The report drew international media attention and a flood of interest. Scientific Learning Corporation, the company Merzenich had been urging his colleagues to found, became a reality one month later.
"I'll tell you why we created this company," Merzenich offers. "There are simply some moments in science when something new proves to be so powerful that you immediately realize you have a responsibility to get it out into the world. It happened with cochlear implants; after our initial trials I knew it was going to happen with this training program.
"There was one little kid in the trial from one of the economically poorest African-American communities in
. His language abilities were just a mess when he started the training. He was 6 years old with a language age of 2. He didn't know his colors or shapes. He was hyperactive. A month later, he was completely different kid. His language ability was nearly up with his age, he was a good listener, he was in control and he understood well when we talked with him. He was just dramatically altered. At that moment I knew we had to find a way to get this out there." New York
Out there it is, with thousands of copies of the $850 program in use by speech therapy professionals around the country. Several hundred more children have been tested, including kids with symptoms of dyslexia and autism. The results have been very promising, and the training technique is now being tried with reading impairments.
Not every scientist or speech therapist shares Dr. Merzenich's boundless enthusiasm, which suits him just fine. "Lots of people are very skeptical about extending this approach beyond simple language impairment," he says, "and they should be skeptical. There is still a lot of science to be done. But my goal, our goal, the mission of this company, is to get this training as fast as possible to the children it can clearly help." The scientist leans forward again into a posture fairly brimming with that's-not-all. "It's our mission as well to demonstrate to the scientific world that utilizing the plasticity of the brain for good is a strategy with tremendous prospects for helping people. There is a learning-based component to be attacked in almost every chronic neurological condition.
"This is really the beginning of a new industry, the purpose of which is to apply the principles of brain science and related psychology to the remediation of all kinds of human problems. Yes, we're taking a peek into Pandora's Box, talking about changing human potential and the measures of human intelligence. But I'm not a bit adverse, when I have good research behind me, to shoving this model down the science community's collective throat if I have to and saying 'Look, this works. We can help people.'"
A few days later, just back from a second jet-lag-squared turnaround to Europe, this time to
to accept the internationally respected Ipsen Prize for his work in brain plasticity, the seemingly tireless Merzenich asks a UCSF grad student in neurology what he's currently studying. The student, with obvious pride, details the particular molecule he's working on. Merzenich, with equally obvious glee, pounces. Paris
"A molecule?" he says, eyes alight. "That's absurd! You aren't studying a molecule, you are studying learning and memory!"
The student's neurons are almost audible as they burst into a small molecular frenzy, committing this moment indelibly to memory. Somewhere, Professors Carlton and Brookhart are smiling.
Having made his point, Dr. Merzenich, like all good teachers, spends a few minutes carefully reconstructing the student's slightly battered self-esteem. He tells the story of one of his three daughters, the one who is following in his footsteps as a scientist, and how a similar answer provoked a similar response.
On the drive from academe to free enterprise, to the nearly settled new SLC offices in
, the applied philosopher can't stop smiling. That is to say, certain cells in his cerebellum are sending impulses to motor neurons contracting the striped muscles just under the skin below his cheekbones. "That's usually always the operational point of view of the neuroscientist - to view the brain as a machine in which everything can be explained as a common process," Dr. Merzenich is saying. "A machine which, if they could make one in their shop, would then have a perfectly nice conversation with them and share all of their spiritual values! I can't look at it that way-my point of view as a brain scientist will always be provoked by issues of philosophy and questions about the origins of spirit and consciousness. We understand a lot at this point about the workings of the brain on a physiological level--and yet there are still great mysteries. How do the spiritual aspects of who we are rise out of this extraordinary machine? It's a continual source of fascination and wonder for me." Seeing an opening, he steers for the fast lane. Accelerating, the traffic carries the scientist forward. Berkeley
He was born in 1936, the fifth of seven children, in rural
, in a house with no plumbing. His parents, Joseph and Katherine, were immigrants from North Dakota Russia; Joseph had been a farmer near . In 1943, the Mosbruckers fled the Dakota dust bowl and the Depression and moved to Odessa , where Joseph found work in the Portland Shipyards. The family lived in Oregon Salemand Joseph commuted four hours a day, long before there was an interstate highway in the . Jack’s early memories of his father are of him sleeping or eating the massive breakfast of a shipyard man — eggs, potatoes, and sausages, all slathered with his extra-hot homemade horseradish sauce. Willamette Valley
Jack earned a physics degree from the
and then a master’s in physics at Notre Dame, but by the end of his grad school years he found himself far more absorbed by the Gospels than by physics. He wanted to work with people, to focus his life, to aim for a world where the Universityof Portland was real and immediate; and he began to seriously ponder priesthood. He spent a year studying Latin at Immaculate Conception in Kingdomof God Missouri, and then he entered Saint Paul Seminary in . Minnesota
He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in 1966, and was assigned first to Silverton, where he taught at Kennedy High. He then taught for a year at Central Catholic High in
Portland, studied pastoral care and counseling at the Menninger Foundation in Kansasfor two years, and then spent 16 years in parish work at Saint Henry’s in (1972 to 1988). From 1988 to 2000 he was pastor at Gresham Saint Charlesin , and since then he has been pastor and jack-of-all-trades at Saint Therese. Portland
I ask him what’s been hardest about his career as a priest. “Trying to spark people to a greater, deeper understanding of the Gospels,” he says. “And trying to implement some of the sweeping changes of the Second Vatican Council.”
What’s been most rewarding? “That’s easy,” he says. “Working with people, helping them when things are difficult, helping them when someone they love dies. And helping people prepare for the sacraments.”
Jim Platt’s attentiveness to airplanes used to be a life or death matter, both for him and for airplane pilots, because Platt was a rescue crew commander in
. He flew 98 search-and-recovery combat missions aboard an HH-3E helicopter — the famous Jolly Green Giant, armed with titanium plating, in-flight refueling probe, two 7.62mm machine guns, a forest penetrator, and a high-speed rescue hoist with a 240-foot cable. Platt rescued nine downed airmen during his one-year tour at Vietnam , and when he came home — a battle veteran all of 23 years old — he carried two Silver Stars for gallantry in action. Nakhon Phanom, Thailand
“When you’re in air rescue you never have that crisis of conscience that maybe you would have in combat airplanes,” says Platt. “Your only mission was to rescue people, so you got motivated by that. Our airplanes were going in to bomb. If they had battle damage, we’d go and pick them up.”
November 9, 1967. Two airmen aboard an F4 Phantom fighter were on a low-flying night mission bombing enemy trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When one of the plane’s quarter-ton bombs ignited prematurely, the two men were blown out of the air near Mu Gia Pass in the border region of
Laosand . Vietnam
The radar navigator flying in the backseat was killed. The pilot, Lt. Lance Sijan, sustained head injuries and a broken leg, but remained alive somewhere in the rugged mountainside foliage. Radio contact was established and eight Jolly Green Giants flying in pairs (one high, one low) shared in the rescue effort. As anti-aircraft ground fire would chase one pair from the area, another duo would take over.
During Platt’s recoils, an A1-E Second World War prop-driven fighter plane would act as his helicopter’s escort, its pilot providing “flack suppression” — keeping the helicopter safe from enemy ground fire.
“As we were going in, I could see him off our wing,” Platt remembers, choosing his words carefully. “Suddenly he erupts in a fireball.” The plane and its pilot, Platt’s “guardian angel,” had been shot down.
“Rescue forces have a deal,” Platt continues. “Whenever a rescue unit was shot down, you immediately went to get him out. We knew there was a good chance to get him alive if we got him right away. But I was going where I knew I would have to hover in a location where this guy had just gotten shot down. I spent a few minutes saying Hail Marys while I sat in that hover. Luckily we were in a valley where the thick terrain and dense cover enabled us to get him. I think that’s why the bad guys didn’t get us.”
Platt’s flight engineer monitored the rescue hoist, which the survivor could strap into, and pulled the pilot to safety. Platt flew him back to Nakhon Phanom for medical assistance, but by then it was too dark to return to rescue the downed F4 pilot. That search, now 15 hours long, was over for the day.
“That night the commander asked for volunteers for the next day, and every single guy volunteered,” Platt says. “It made it difficult to sleep at night if you knew you were going out. Every so often fear jumps up, and you’d have to beat it down. Some things you have control over and some you don’t. You knew if you spent time dwelling on what you didn’t control, you could never be effective.”
Contact was never re-established with Lt. Sijan the following morning, and he was never found alive. After evading his captors for six weeks, Sijan became a prisoner of war, dying in a fight with the enemy in January 1968. His remains were returned to the
in March 1974, and his story (based on accounts from fellow POWs) was told in Malcolm McConnell’s book In the Mouth of the Cat. Posthumously, Sijan became the first-ever U.S. graduate to receive the Medal of Honor. Platt’s heroics in the A1-E rescue mission won him the Silver Star — presented to him by Air Force General Benjamin Davis, who commanded the Tuskegee Airmen in the Second World War. Air Force Academy
“An honor,” Platt says. “But the war went on.”
Less than a year later, a F15 jet fighter was shot down in
Southern Laos, leaving a colonel lost and wounded. Platt, ignoring the rescuer’s cardinal rule of knowing the location before going in, hovered over enemy territory in search of the downed pilot.
After finding him, Platt sent his rescue man, 18-year-old Thomas Newman, down the hoist.
“Whatever happens will happen to both of us,” Newman told the colonel on the ground.
The high helicopter arrived to drop another rescue hoist hoping to carry the two Americans out of danger. But radio calls said contact with them had been lost and enemy ground fire was heavy. When Platt retracted his hoist and roared off, however, Newman and the colonel were in tow.
Newman’s courage was rewarded with both an Air Force Cross and the Cheney Award, given to the most significant rescue of 1968. Platt was awarded a Silver Star. Soon thereafter he returned to the States and married his girlfriend; today Platt and his wife have four children and he is Boeing’s liaison with the Federal Aviation Agency. But his daunting and courageous season in
is never far away. “I feel good about what went on over there, and I never felt the frustration that some people do,” he says. “But it occurred in the past, and I don’t want to live there. I want to move on.” Vietnam