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The art of neural networking
By Cliff Hauptman

Any second, now, she must surely give in and tell them the answer. It has already been . . . what? . . . 10 or 15 seconds of excruciating drawn-out silence, so suspenseful you can almost hear the sustained, high tone of a violin. A quarter minute ago, she had posed a question to her Brandeis University biology class of about a dozen students, mostly juniors and seniors, but also some graduate students, a post-doc, and one brave sophomore, all of them now mutely awaiting an epiphany from the chalk sketch of a synapse on the blackboard.

Another 10 seconds and she is still in want of an answer, unfazed by the lack of response, which must seem to the students as embarrassing as exposed underwear. Five seconds more go by, seeming like hours in this shrill tautness. The students begin to fidget, but the professor, Gina Turrigiano ’84, the infinitely patient questioner, will not yield. She waits as though she is not even waiting, without anxiety: tranquil, as if certain of the outcome. Finally, the technique bears fruit; a student cracks under the pressure and yields a reticent answer. To the surprise of all but Turrigiano, the answer is a good one. Now she can continue, elaborating on the response. The tension disappears like a released bowstring. Turrigiano moves purposefully to the blackboard to emphasize a point, amend a diagram, write an equation. After 40 minutes of the three-hour class, she offers time for a break; everyone declines. She poses another question. Then she folds back onto her chair, front and center, one leg tucked casually under her as though conversing with a friend in her living room, and sips from a coffee mug the size of a small wash basin, awaiting another answer.

Dressed in a blue crewneck cotton sweater and loden green corduroy pants, ponytail hanging halfway down her back, her youthful face adorned with black-rimmed glasses, she might be mistaken for one of her students if not for the aura. Turrigiano, associate professor of biology at the Volen National Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis, is the recipient of a recent MacArthur “genius” award for her work in furthering our understanding of the development of complicated neural networks. She exudes a palpable self-confidence, as well she should after her welcome into the pantheon. But hers is a self-confidence with no arrogance in it. Instead one senses a profound centeredness, a life and psyche in remarkably fruitful balance.

Turrigiano is married to Sacha Nelson, with whom she collaborates scientifically. He is also at Brandeis as associate professor of biology and the Volen National Center for Complex Systems. They are the parents of Gabriel, 8, and Raphael, 3. Turrigiano shares that personal time with time spent teaching graduate and undergraduate classes, writing grants, reviewing research papers, giving talks to audiences ranging from the very general to the incredibly particular, reading the literature in her field and, as she says, “having some ideas every once in a while,” and directing all the graduate students who work in her lab while staying on top of the nitty-gritty control experiments that take place there, experiments aimed, as she says, at “trying to understand the rules that determine how complicated networks of neurons become wired during development, and how these same networks are altered when people learn something.”


On top of all that there is the business aspect of the lab, which entails personnel management in the accommodation of all the different styles and temperaments of her assistants—four graduate students, three post-docs, and always at least one undergraduate who is working on a real research project. “It’s amazing,” she muses, “the range of things we have to do to make it work. It requires an incredible ability to multi-task, but it’s a lot of fun, too, and great if you can carry it off.” Which she does, apparently to a level of excellence that has placed her among the elite of award recipients.

She got the call from the MacArthur Foundation while in her lab at Brandeis. One of her graduate students was there, as well, and Turrigiano’s immediate reaction was to shout aloud, “Holy smokes, I just won a MacArthur!” The voice on the phone expressed concern: no one else was supposed to know about the award until the foundation, itself, made the news public. “I had to carry that incredible secret around for a couple of days,” Turrigiano says. “Actually, though,” she goes on, “I never associated the award with scientists. I thought it always went to starving artists and writers. The guy up the road won one when I was a child, and he’d always been my hero. It’s a great honor to be in that kind of company.”

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