Watching the detectives

This fall I became the writer-in-residence at the Montreal Neurological Institute. The position is new and something of an experiment. This blog is a record of that experiment.

The idea to spend some time observing neuroscientists at work started with a lecture given by Brenda Milner for the 75th anniversary of the MNI in 2009. Milner presented an overview of her research of the now famous patient HM. I was fascinated both by the story of HM and Milner’s discoveries about memory, and by Milner herself. At 92, she is still active in the world of research (she appears to have more energy than I usually do at less than half her age) and she’s a good storyteller. I was curious to know more about her.

I had the opportunity to interview Milner for the online news and features service of the Dana Foundation, but, as with many freelance assignments, I felt that I had only touched the surface (through no fault of the Dana Foundation, I should add.) Many of the science articles I write follow a formula (Martin Robbins hit all too close to the mark in The Guardian) and leave little room for what physicist and writer Jeremy Bernstein calls “the human side of science.” Who are the people who spend their lives working at science? We hear about writers, artists, actors, and others engaged in creative pursuits, but little is written about scientists.

Wilder Penfield, who founded the MNI in 1934, once said, “The problem of neurology is to understand man himself.” (This quote is etched into the façade of the building that houses the MNI.) It seems an interesting problem, therefore, to try and understand the neurologist.

I am not receiving any funding from the MNI for this residency. I work occasionally as a freelance writer for the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University (which is affiliated with the MNI), but the work is completely unrelated to this project.

posted by Maria Schamis Turner @ 5:17 PM   0 Comments


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