Bringing the Brain to Reed
After 31 years advancing the study of neuroscience and herding aspiring psychologists, Dell Rhodes has retired. The emerita professor of psychology arrived at Reed in 1975, fresh out of grad school at UCLA, and went on to teach, administrate, and mentor with vim and vigor. On September 7 and 8, the college community celebrated her retirement by hosting “DellFest,” a lively series of colloquia presented by former students who returned to campus to expose their work to Rhodes’ characteristic scrutiny, and share in the festivities.
Before Rhodes’ arrival at Reed, neuroscience at the college was handled mainly in the biology department. The brain, says former student Jeri Janowsky ’78 (now a neurology professor at Oregon Health & Science University) was considered just another organ to be studied. Although neurons were being examined in sea slugs, there was little in the way of psychological investigation. Rhodes initiated a new age of microsurgery and rat experiments in the physics sub-basement. It was Rhodes, says Janowsky, who “brought the brain to Reed.”
Service to Reed has also characterized much of Rhodes’ career. In all, she spent nearly two decades assisting in the administration of the college, including a year as associate dean of students. Fittingly, despite having officially retired, Rhodes is teaching the psychology junior seminar this semester.
The accomplishments of Rhodes’ former students demonstrate her legacy in the field of psychology. “Well into my academic career now, I can say without hesitation that the skills in critical analysis of scientific literature I acquired under Dell’s tutelage in the late 1980s . . . continue to serve as a crucial foundation for my professional development,” wrote Matthew Kurtz ’89, in a collection of remembrances presented to Rhodes (Kurtz teaches psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine). Sonya Masinovsky ’04, who works at Sony Pictures Television, wrote: “As astounding as it may sound, I believe that Dell taught me how to really read and write.”
But learning to read and write Rhodes-style was not always an easy process. Jenny Mitchell ’93, a research scientist in neurology at UC San Francisco, offered up a limerick to make the point:
There once was
Steve Lindsay ’81, a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria, remembered a particularly intimidating neuropsychology course—the most challenging he ever took as an undergraduate. “Dell gave us a single-question midterm over the break,” he wrote. “Around Thursday of that week I developed a twitch in my right eyebrow.”
Reviewing the letters sent to Rhodes by her former students, the word “mentor” comes up again and again. John Garza ’01, who is now studying psychology at the University of Denver, wrote: “Dell has the highest of standards for research for herself and for her students. She remains to this day my mentor, not out of any obligation from ‘work,’ but because she fundamentally cares about me and my success.”
Many of Rhodes’ students also noted the energy and vigor she brought to conversations, whatever the topic. Any student who has been grilled by her on a paper topic has probably noticed her habit of rocking back and forth. Kristi Hiatt ’97, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oregon, evoked Rhodes’ characteristic rocking during a presentation on psychopathic behavior at DellFest. “That’s Dell thinking,” she later explained, “but the valence is uncertain.”
Janowsky described Rhodes’ role in the lives of her former students as she introduced her talk on sex steroids, cognition, and brain aging: “We were all her thesis students, and we are still her thesis students. As people have gone on and on about how rigorous Dell is, how she wants you to think about your data, I got really nervous. I’ve given a lot of talks, but this may be the hardest.”
—Ben Edwards ’07