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2013 Neuroscience Prize

Eve Marder

While growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, first in Manhattan, then in northern New Jersey, and finally in the small New York suburb of Irvington-on-Hudson, Eve Marder didn’t feel particularly destined to become a scientist. “I loved biology,” she recalls, “but I also really loved English and history and everything else. I just liked all of learning.” When Marder headed off to Brandeis University in 1965, she intended to study politics and become a lawyer.

After her freshman year, however, Marder realized she missed science, so she switched her major to biology, although she still thought she’d go to law school. But the real turning point in her education—the one that set her firmly on her future career path—came during her junior year at Brandeis, while writing a paper on schizophrenia for a course in abnormal psychology. Her professor had casually mentioned in class the somewhat heretical view at the time that schizophrenia might be biologically based, caused by the inhibition of electrochemical signals in the brain. “I went to the library and read everything I could about inhibition of the brain, which wasn’t much at that time, and that’s when I decided to become a neuroscientist,” Marder recalls.

After graduating from Brandeis in 1969, Marder headed to the University of California, San Diego, for graduate school. At the time, very few women were pursuing advanced degrees in science, partly because of academic quotas. But in 1969, the military had just ended draft deferrals for male graduate students, so the number of men entering PhD programs that year plummeted—and the number of women accepted into the programs dramatically increased. “We suddenly had access,” says Marder. “My class was 50-50, gender neutral.”

It was while she was at UCSD that Marder was introduced to the neural network that was to define her career: the lobster stomatagastric-ganglion (STG) system. This circuit of 30 neurons controls the muscles that grind and move food through the digestive tract of lobsters, crabs, and other crustaceans. It is an example of a central-pattern generator, the same type of rhythmic neural circuitry that controls breathing and other automatic functions in humans.  Marder recognized early on that the STG was extremely useful for research. Its neurons are relatively large, for example, and even when removed from the lobster and placed in a cell-culture dish, the STG continues to function for long periods of time. “It was possible to do experiments with the STG that you couldn’t possibly do with larger vertebrate preparations,” she says. “I just loved working with it.”

Over the next few years, while completing her PhD at UCSD and her postdoctoral studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene and the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, France, Marder began making some remarkable and groundbreaking discoveries. At the time, scientists believed that the connections in neural circuits were hard-wired to produce a single and predictable pattern of output, or behavior. Marder discovered, however, that far from being fixed, the STG was remarkably plastic. It could alter both its parameters and its function in direct response to various neurotransmitters (endogenous chemicals that transmit messages between neurons), and it did this while still maintaining its basic integrity. Her discoveries of these “neuromodulators” marked a paradigm shift in how scientists viewed the architecture and function of all neural circuits, including those in humans.

In 1978, Marder returned to Brandeis University to join the biology department, where she has remained ever since. At Brandeis, in addition to continuing her research on the STG, Marder has helped pioneer the expansion of theoretical neuroscience, which uses computational and mathematical tools to quantify what nervous systems do and how they operate. As part of this effort, she developed, along with Columbia University’s Larry Abbott, PhD, a major experimental tool known as the dynamic clamp, which allows scientists to introduce mathematically modeled synaptic or other conductances into biological neurons. The device is now used worldwide for the study of neural systems at the cellular and circuitry levels.

More recently, Marder has been investigating how neural circuits maintain stability, or homeostasis, over long periods of time despite constant replacement of the ion channel proteins that give neurons their characteristic excitability properties, “It’s a fascinating problem to try and figure out how you can keep that machinery running perfectly for years and years while it’s constantly rebuilding itself without the machinery making too many mistakes,” says Marder.

Marder has received numerous honors and awards during her distinguished career, including memberships in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition, she has inspired and mentored a long line of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who are now at leading academic institutions around the world. She has also been active throughout her career in efforts to improve science education, research, and policy. In 2013, she was named to the National Institutes of Health working group for President Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies) initiative. 

Marder lives in the Boston area with her husband, Arthur Wingfield, PhD, who is also a professor of neuroscience at Brandeis University. Marder says she enjoys going to theater and dance performances and reading good and bad books in her spare time. “But mostly,” she says, “I do science.”