Charles H. Page, Department of Biological Sciences
Rutgers University, Piscataway, New Jersey

What themes unify neurobiology?

A unifying theme in neurobiology is how nervous systems generate behavior. Neurobiologists commonly study animals that have exaggerated or specialized sensory, motor or behavioral capacities in order to learn about some aspect of neural function common to all complex animals including rats and humans. Information from such analyses lets us compare neural mechanisms used by quite different animals to determine how they meet similar behavioral challenges such as locomotion, predation, feeding, reproduction, defense, aggression and escape.

How diverse is the field of neurobiology?

Studies range from the investigation of sensory, neural and motor function in the context of whole animal behavior to the analysis of behaviorally significant activities of single nerve cells and small neural networks, including developmental aspects of both. Topics include specialized sensory, motor and central neural systems. For example, neurobiologists might study:

  • central visual and auditory neural systems and behavioral orientation in amphibians
  • electroreception in fish
  • compound eyes of arthropods
  • visual systems and behavior in arthropods
  • control of insect flight
  • echolocation in bats
  • generation of rhythmic patterns of motor (muscle) activity in crustaceans

How did you and other colleagues become
interested in neurobiology?

In general, neurobiologists become interested in understanding how the nervous system operates and how various animal behaviors are generated. This interest may be developed from observing animals in nature, visits to the zoo, aquariums and museums, and reading books on natural history, biology and general science.

Why is your field exciting?

It offers the opportunity of understanding how the nervous system generates behavior and how differences in nervous system organization and function impact the repertoire of behaviors that an animal needs to succeed in its natural environment. What could be more exciting than contributing to the ultimate goal of neurobiology - a physicochemical description of mental activity (the mind)?

How does the study of neurobiology help society? Why should the public care?

The study of neural functions in nontraditional animals oftentimes provides information that is unattainable from investigations of more traditional experimental preparations. For example, since the leech and many molluscan and arthropod nervous systems have relatively few, large neurons, their function can be studied at the level of specific nerve cells, which is not possible in mammalian nervous systems that are much larger and contain billions of cells. Such studies have provided essential information for understanding mammalian neural function, and have thus provided a foundation for research specifically directed at finding remedies for neurological disorders.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day for a neurobiologist in an academic setting is a mix of:

  • laboratory research
  • consultations with graduate students
  • writing (research papers and grant proposals)
  • teaching undergraduate and graduate classes
  • participating in (and occasionally chairing) committee meetings dealing with the various academic and administrative concerns of a university