Max-Planck-Institut für empirische Ästhetik, ArtLab Foyer
Growing up in Science with Wolf Singer
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Science is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
At each event, we will have an open conversation (interview) with one faculty member representing science in its broad spectrum. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that are universal undercurrents of working in academia but that too often remain unspoken.
On Monday, October 15th, the interview partner is Prof. Dr. Wolf Singer, Ernst Strüngmann Institute (ESI) in Cooperation with Max Planck Society
The official CV
Wolf Singer was born in March 1943 in Munich, spent nine years in the boarding school Schloß Neubeuern and then enrolled 1962 as a medical student at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. After the preclinical exams he continued studies in Paris for one year, following a graduate program in neuroscience, returned to Munich in 1966, started his MD thesis on inter-hemispheric synchrony in the lab of Prof. Otto Creutzfeldt at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry while continuing his medical studies. In 1968 he passed the medical exams, obtained the degree of MD and married Francine Miroux. From 1969 to 1970 he worked in several clinics to obtain his approbation as a general practitioner and in parallel pursued research in the lab of Creutzfeldt. After a stay in the Psychology department of Stuart Sutherland at the University of Sussex he joined 1972 as postdoc the Lab of Prof Lux at the MPI Psychiatry, built his own research group with grants from the German Research Foundation, passed his military service (three months), enrolled as lecturer at the Technical University in Munich (TUM), obtained the venia legendi (Habilitation) in 1975 and became Professor for Physiology at the TUM in 1980. In 1981 he was nominated director of the Department of Neurophysiology at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt that he ran until he became emeritus in 2011.
In 2004 he cofounded the Brain Imaging Center and the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies, in 2006 he founded the Ernst Strüngmann Forum (former Dahlem Conferences) and in 2008 the Ernst Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience in Cooperation with Max Planck Society.
The unofficial CV
The first ten years were spent in a tiny village in upper Bavaria where Wolf´s father had settled as a MD after returning from war. Walking, cycling or skiing the 5 km to school provided the non-supervised time necessary to learn the basics, including milking of cows whom he knew by name. Followed a harsh transition to boarding school as there were no high schools nearby. However, what appeared as a penalty finally became the escape route towards a much more complex world. The school lacked furniture: Wolf was trained as a carpenter, produced a lot of useful and a few decorative pieces and finally obtained a master diploma that could have secured a decent income.
In order to stay connected with the world – radios and newspapers were not allowed – he became an expert in miniaturizing receivers. Because he resisted successfully to formal piano lessons he ended up in the jazz band, playing by ear, first on the bass and then on the clarinet (the latter was heard more and caused less pain for the fingers).
Early imprinting was probably the reason for the passion to climb up mountains and also for the decision to study medicine. The rational justification was that medicine promised to be a comprehensive “Studium Generale” of nature, psychiatry providing a link to the humanities. Years of doubts led to equally disappointing excursions into physics, “too far away from life”, into philosophy, “too much dependent on arbitrary stances”, and finally to a humble return to the formal medical curriculum. Then serendipity took over the responsibility for the rest of his life: a seminar on the “Neuronal basis of consciousness”, jointly organized by the neurophysiologist Otto Creutzfeld and the psychoanalyst Paul Mattuseck at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry triggered a “heureka experience”: The perspective that neuroscience permits to connect the material with the mental dimension encouraged the student to ask Otto, rather than the psychoanalyst, whether he could join the lab for a thesis. “ In principle yes, but you have to learn much more” was the answer. At that time a stipend by the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes had paved the way to continue studies in Cambridge (UK) and Wolf left Munich. The dossier for Cambridge went lost in translation, so he decided to inscribe at the Sorbonne instead. (Two years earlier he had volunteered several months in Paris hospitals). Still in England his car had been robbed during an excursion to London with the (un)fortunate consequence that a lovely French student lost all documents which prevented her from flying out the next day and forced her to stay on – sufficiently long to prepare the grounds for their later marriage.
At the Sorbonne the eminent neuroscientist Pierre Buser had set up a graduate training program for neurophysiology – at that time an exotic rarity. Thanks to a recommendation by Otto Creutzfeldt, his future thesis advisor, the young student was admitted: Internships in Psychiatry and Neurology in the morning, lab work in the afternoon and Paris at night – not a bad alternative to Cambridge after all. A year later, back in Munich, Otto proposed to study the role of telencephalic commissures on interhemispheric synchrony and to learn from Giovanni Berlucchi in Pisa how to sever the commissures. This was Otto´s mentoring style – identify a timely topic and then let the students self-organize. Otto´s great virtue was to devote time to whoever knocked at his door, creating a very special spirit of confidence in the lab.
Despite this wonderful playground that allowed Wolf even before the end of his thesis to venture into the secrets of intracellular recordings and membrane physiology, doubts were omnipresent whether to stay in science. Wolf worked twice a week in the medical practise of his father and for a year took on a neurology ward in the clinic of the Max Planck Institute, while continuing lab work. The satisfaction to cure patients and the need to secure support for his family, that had rapidly doubled by the birth of twins, competed with the temptations of cerebral gymnastics with all its ups and downs and unpredictable outcomes. However, when asked to help to restructure the MPI for Brain Research in Frankfurt, the dices were thrown. A terrible horror vacui marked the beginning, quickly cured by great applications of superb students and post-docs, that made it difficult to comply with Otto´s most important advice: “Do not let your department get too big!”. After 15 smoothly running years devoted to the study of experience dependent development the serendipitous discovery of synchronized oscillations had a disruptive effect and shifted the research agenda to the investigation of cortical dynamics. Heated debates and controversies followed. Suddenly the brain looked much more complex than two decades ago. The lessons of a long parcours: There are no control experiments in life and most of the really important bifurcations are due to serendipity. Thus, what really matters are the wonderful “compagnons de voyage”, the great family, the caring mentors and the passionate coworkers. They shared the risks, frustrations and joyful moments of curiosity driven science that make it one of the most exciting and satisfying professions.
(For a more comprehensive account see Vol. 9 of “The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography”)