Expert Breakfast Report for 8 May 2019: Prof Mike Colombo, Dept of Psychology

In a lively and interesting session, Prof Colombo compared university education here and in the USA, the advisability of gaining as wide an education as possible, developing generic skills and his team’s research on how memory is coded in the brain.

Mike Colombo was born in New York and has a particular affection for Colorado, having been an undergraduate at the University of Colorado. He started there as a pre-med student (roughly equivalent to our Health Science studentships).

The structure of courses differs considerably from ours, with the first four years studying a Major with a wide variety of options and including mandatory study of social science subjects if you choose a science-based Major. Only after completion of this 4 years do students apply for entry to Graduate School (see note 1) to study Medicine, Law, Engineering, etc., as well as higher degrees, mainly Masters and PhDs. (This is equivalent to ‘post-graduate entry’ to professional studies, which is available to an extent at Otago, and is also becoming more used elsewhere, e.g. many UK Universities now offer post-graduate entry to a 4 year course in Medicine - Ed).

A great advantage of post-graduate entry, especially coupled with mandatory papers outside one’s main interest, is that it widens horizons and enables people to make a more informed choice about their future.

Like many others, Mike was initially very resistant to the idea of having to study subjects that seemed to have no relevance to his chosen major, such as social sciences and humanities, but now regards this as a very important part of his education. He recalled a paper on Modern Short Stories, taken on reluctantly, and subsequently enjoyed. “It makes you a more rounded person.”

As he progressed through pre-med with increasing opportunity to take part in research, it became clear to him that research was what interested him most, much more than practising medicine - to the great disappointment of his parents. He did apply to med schools as well as other graduate schools, and was accepted for medicine by some. Nevertheless he opted for a PhD in neuroscience, a process that took another four and a half years. He recounted ‘the joke around the world about how long it takes to get a PhD’, the answer being one year longer than the funding made available, whatever that happens to be. For example, funding for a PhD in New Zealand is generally for 3 years, and most people take 4; in the States, funding is for 4 years, and most people take 5.

 Mike’s PhD was at Rutgers University, New Jersey, in behavioural neuroscience working with monkeys. It was at Rutgers that he met his wife Harlene, a developmental psychologist who had also been at Colorado, though they never met there. Both did post-doctoral work at Princeton for 3 years. Having both come to the conclusion that they wanted academic careers, thoughts turned to having their own laboratories and their own students.

Obtaining an academic post is not easy for anyone, and looking for two at the same university is even more difficult. Eventually something turned up in Maryland which meant they would be working at different places, but by living somewhere positioned centrally between the two, they would have only 45 minute commute each. Before they embarked on that, however, an advertisement appeared for jobs at Otago for a both a neuroscientist and a developmental psychologist. They knew the HoD at the time, Geoff White, applied for the jobs, and loved the University and the Department when they visited (Dunedin City not so much - it was different 27 years ago!).

When offered the posts, they decided to give it a go for 3 years, 5 years maximum. Twenty-seven years later they are both still here, having both worked their ways up to their present positions - Head of Department (Mike), and University Vice-Chancellor (Harlene).

He has grown to love Dunedin City, though he feels that the ability to exit from Dunedin from time to time is a key ingredient to remaining in Dunedin for the long term.

Questions began at this point, and I will present the information as bullet points to save space:

  • Mike promotes a more general education than is common here in the first years of tertiary study, “Take as many electives out of science as you can while you can.” Psychology, after all, was one of the social science courses he was forced to take, and now he is Head of Psychology.
  • While most or all University staff are drawn to the work because of their interest in research, a subset, including himself, also enjoy teaching.
  • A past Chair of the Animal Ethics Committee of the University, Mike noted there is an ethical rule that one should use a species with the simplest nervous system possible to achieve your goals.
  •  Mike’s research animal now is the pigeon - while having a much simpler nervous system than monkey, they can be trained to do everything for which he once used monkeys.
  • Central to his research on how memory is coded in the brain is recording what happens in brain cells while the animals are carrying out their tasks - which are basically memory and visual games.
  • The killing of animals at the end of experiments is an unpleasant thing, not welcomed by anyone, but needed to confirm where the recorded impulses were being generated. “That’s the ugly part, but there is no way round it.”
  • Workers can, and often do, become attached to their animals. Because of the necessity of post-mortem verification, it is common practice not to kill the animals you have worked with yourself, but for a colleague to take on that unpleasant duty in the most humane way available.
  • At Otago one is expected to spend 40% of available time on teaching, 40% on research, and 20% on administration.
  • The joys of teaching include having interested students, seeing understanding happening, and having ideas challenged by students.
  • Writing well is a rare anddifficult skill whichfew people have. Once gained, however, you have this desirable skill for life.
  • Generic (also called ‘transferable’) skills learnt and refined at University are of interest to any future employer. These include such things as writing well, communication in general, critical thinking and learning skills. A curriculum review instituted by Mike in his Department is aimed at putting more emphasis on developing these generic skills.
  • Informing the public on curiosity-driven research presents something of a challenge compared to research that has a cure as its aim, but Mike gives several public lectures, and the press pick up on some key publications. In the end, applied research depends very heavily on the results of curiosity-driven research to design a sensible approach.
  • Research can be very competitive largely due to funding structures, though in some areas it is more collaborative.
  • The most fascinating findings to date: There is very little evidence for differences in cognitive abilities between vertebrate species - pigeons can do exactly what monkeys can do. There are individual cells in the brain that code for specific things - e.g. some cells code for visual features, others code for information you are trying to remember.

For example:

(As usual, there was more, but I have already exceeded my limit of 1,000 words. Do try to attend these breakfasts to gain the full experience).

Note 1: The schools delivering those topics listed are sometimes referred to as ‘professional’ schools, the difference between ‘graduate’ and 'professional’ school being somewhat indistinct.

[For anyone interested, the following link includes another link giving you a download of the Department Journal - well worth a look. - Ed.]

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Posted: Monday May 13, 2019