Neuroscientist and biology professor Megan Doczi, PhD, received the 2021 Homer L. Dodge Award for Excellence in Teaching. The following essay is adapted from her September Convocation address to the Norwich community.
NORWICH RECORD | Winter 2022
When I was a student, if someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I would often reply, “Oh, I don’t know, a doctor, a scientist … but the last thing I want to do is teach.” That final caveat was mainly due to my intense fear of public speaking. I’m sure some can relate to that feeling: The palms of your hands get sweaty, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, your heart pounds out of your chest. In neuroscience, we refer to this as the fight-or-flight response, one often motivated by fear. It’s the feeling we get when delivering a classroom presentation, defending our country, or falling in love. This involuntary part of our nervous system is in place to ensure that we respond effectively to external threats, protecting us in emergency situations.
Not everyone is interested in neuroscience. But we all have a brain, and the human brain is the only organ in our body that has the capacity to study itself. What if understanding the human brain could also help us understand more about the broader connections in the world around us?
Your brain is made up of approximately 86 billion neurons. (Yes, that’s billion with a “b.”) These neurons are the functional information-processing units of the brain. They are connected to each other via synapses, or junctions, where neurons can communicate with each other. These billions of neurons, connected by trillions of synapses, far outnumber the abundance of stars even in our own Milky Way galaxy. Right here, inside our own heads. And much like the uni¬verse around us, these connections in the human brain are constantly changing. Adapting. Learning. Dismantling.
Our human experience physically changes our brain and creates a phenomenon known as synaptic plasticity. But what do these synapses look like? Are they organized into seemingly endless arrays of parallel lines? Are they completely mismatched and random, zigzagging their way around our minds? Or is it something in-between? And more important, should we ask the question how do these synapses change?
In neuroscience, there is a widely held model that explains how neuronal circuits might refine their connectivity based on the patterned firing of brain cells. It goes something like this: Neurons that fire together, wire together. In the 1940s, neuropsychologist Donald Hebb used these words to describe how neuronal pathways in the brain could be formed and reinforced by repetitive firing of electrical signals. In other words, “Practice. Makes. Perfect.” This model remains one of the most widely held theories of learning and memory, even today. Neurons that fire together, wire together. This means a neuron that fires at the same time as its neighbors will cooperatively form strong, stable connections onto its partner cells. Some of these connections are fleeting, but some may last an entire life¬time. Others may even survive longer than that.
For those of you just step¬ping foot onto campus, you will be bombarded with new experiences, new knowledge, new relationships. Rooks and cadets, when you march in formation on the Upper Parade Ground, your motor neurons are firing rhythmically, in unison, with those around you. One distraction and you are out of step with the crowd. In those moments, your brain is solidifying a pattern. The same pattern as the alumni who marched before you and the same pat¬tern as generations yet to come. This is a collective connectivity that will unite you for a lifetime. Athletes, musicians, academics, you are all here building on the work of others, while leaving your own personal mark on the Norwich community. Freshmen, you now have four years to form new physical connections in your brain. Which ones will you choose to make stronger? Seniors in the Class of 2022, your time at Norwich is coming to a close, and the synapses that you formed here will propel you into your next chapter of life. Which connections will you choose to take with you?
You might wonder what happens to those neurons that don’t fire together. Well, just as there is a need to strengthen the important connections in our lives, we also need to let go of the elements that are holding us back. Neurons out of sync will lose their link. A neuron that fires out of synchrony with its partner cells will actually weaken its linkages, thereby destabilizing and withdrawing its connections. Some of us might even say, “Use it or lose it,” comparing synaptic strength to a daily exercise regimen, or a lack thereof. Neurons out of sync will lose their link. This allows the nervous system to be selective and efficient with its resources. Not everything you experience will stay with you. In fact, it is the pruning back of synapses in the human brain that helps facilitate the growth of other connections, much like pruning lilacs, or tomato plants, or apple trees. Detaching from the unfruitful components of your life will free up energy to establish more meaningful growth. For us to redirect this energy in a more positive way, we have to accept that it’s OK to let go of things that aren’t beneficial for us. In your time at Norwich, you may decide to change classes, change majors, or change your perspective of the world. This is your opportunity to embrace individuality. Knowing what to let go of is just as important as knowing what to keep.
Let me share a personal example. Like many of you, I was a first-generation college student. While my parents didn’t pursue higher education for themselves, they completely supported my love for learning and pushed me to go as far as knowledge would take me. By now it’s no secret that my passion is the human brain—I knew this from my very first psychology class in high school. My obvious trajectory was always to become a doctor. When I learned how to drive, my parents even bought me a license plate that read “MD-MD,” which stood for Megan Doczi, medical doc¬tor. No pressure or anything! I shadowed in hospitals, I took the MCAT, but the whole time it just didn’t feel right. It felt out of sync. I wanted to go to medical school, but I didn’t want to be a medical doctor. I wanted to learn everything about the human body, but I wasn’t confident I could shoulder the emotional responsibility of treating patients when something went wrong. So I taught myself how to let go of the world’s expectations. I worked to prune back the ideas of what other people wanted me to be. I focused my energy on reinforcing the stable connections that would drive me in my own unique direction. Now that I’m all grown up, I find that those dreams I had as a student did come true. I am a doctor (of philosophy), I am a scientist, and the last thing I want to do … is teach.
So when your hands get sweaty, your breathing becomes rapid, and your heart pounds out of your chest, realize that this fight-or-flight response is what makes you feel most alive. It’s what forces you to fight for the things that matter most: your ideas, your freedom, the people you love. In the words of President Emeritus Richard Schneider, “We are one team, one fight.” In the classroom and on the field, our neurons are firing together, wiring together, and this is our chance to build something so strong that it will transcend the boundaries of Norwich University.
Megan Doczi is an associate professor of biology and chair of the Biology Department. In her lab, she investigates the role of voltage-gated potassium channels in the developmental patterning of hypothalamic circuits governing food intake and energy expenditure.
Photo by Mark Collier