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Biology Professor Sapolsky on "What Matters to Me and Why"

He still is uncertain about the "why," but Robert Sapolsky increasingly knows "what" matters to him.

"To do good science, you've got to work really, really hard," the professor of biological sciences told a noontime audience of 90 students, faculty and staff on Dec. 4 at the biweekly "What Matters to Me and Why" series. "It's not always clear how hard you're supposed to work, but it's something to be condemned ­ if you're doing so much science, trying to save the world ­ to have somebody sitting at home who is growing up without knowing you.

"We really do better when we've got healthy relationships and an emotional life and outside interests," he added.

Although Sapolsky confessed to being "officially nervous" at the start of his informal talk in Memorial Church, the 39-year-old professor who studies the neurobiology of stress was the picture of relaxation. Dressed in jeans, work boots, black T-shirt and green twill shirt, Sapolsky crossed his arms, then stretched and crossed his legs and took listeners back several years to what he described as the worst month of his life ­ "a complete disaster on a very concrete level."

Raised in a stable, middle-class family and provided with all the piano lessons and museum trips a New York City kid could want, Sapolsky said he had been "extremely lucky" most of his life. He had a wonderful wife, good health and was rewarded for the hard work he did.

But in one brief month that good fortune was shattered. His father died, he and his wife, who is a carrier for a genetic disorder, lost a pregnancy and federal funding for his lab was cut off.

"Everything came apart," Sapolsky said. "The day we had to abort the fetus was one of the worst in my life. Then I had to lay off people in my lab, my work ground to a halt and I couldn't go to Africa for my research season. I had never failed to that extent before, and I went into a clinical depression."

Sapolsky had been receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Health for three years, but his application for renewal of the grant was returned with devastating review scores, dropping his research from the top fifth percentile to the bottom 15th. He could only conclude that somebody was out to get him in Washington.

"I went from being utterly depressed to being as pissed as I've been about anything in years," he said. "It was an outrageously unfair review."

Sapolsky went on the scientist's equivalent of welfare, appealing to the deans for funding to float his lab while he reapplied for the grant. He even took a devil's advocate approach at one point and asked himself if it might be worth manipulating projected experiments to save jobs for researchers in the lab.

"But the last thing on earth I would ever, ever do is fake data," he said of the emotional turning point he finally reached. "When it comes to doing science, within my moral system that's roughly akin to sinning and undermines everything that is holy about what we do."

Instead, Sapolsky said, he began to realize that what truly mattered to him were the connections and threads of his life.

"I would still very much love to change the world, and there are three or four neurological diseases that I've got a personal grudge against," Sapolsky said. "I wouldn't mind mopping them up in one amazing experiment to come out of my lab, and I certainly wouldn't mind transforming hundreds of thousands of people's lives overnight with some discovery."

At the same time, he said, he now realizes that whatever he might discover in his lab, someone else is just as likely to discover ­ either 10 minutes earlier, or 10 minutes later.

"It's becoming more clear to me that what really matters is the day-to-day stuff, in terms of teaching ­ all the pseudo-parental things that one looks for in a very artificially nurturant environment like this," he said. "Trying to get somebody excited about learning and trying to get somebody to think in a moral context have begun to have a lot more significance to me."

Sapolsky talked about his relationship with his father and the quarrels they often had about orthodox Jewish rules and regulations. Although Sapolsky abandoned his religious faith at age 14, he said his father's moral influence continues to be apparent today, as he looks forward to the imminent birth of his first child ­ a long-awaited arrival after three years and six failed pregnancies.

"This isn't stuff that would have made any sense to me 20 years ago, or even three years ago, but it sure does now," Sapolsky said. "What seems most interesting is that making sense of this [difficult] period and what counts has virtually nothing to do with getting a stupid grant, but has everything to do with the business of becoming a father."

In fact, Sapolsky said, when he received a new set of "grant numbers" recently, he put them in his knapsack and didn't open them for three weeks.

"My wife and I were waiting to hear about a genetic test," he said, "and I could have cared less about the damn grant at that point."


-By Diane Manuel-

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