Susan K. McConnell

Born: February 11, 1958 | Gary, IN, US

Susan McConnell attended Harvard University, majoring in biology and specializing in animal behavior. She found summer work at the Wisconsin Primate Center, but still questioned the mechanisms of behavior and began thinking in terms of cells. After graduation she worked for Howard Gardner at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Interested more than ever in cells, especially the neuron, and found that work critical for formulating her continued studies. McConnell entered Simon LeVay’s lab at Harvard, working in the visual system in mammals and moving with the lab to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. For postdoctoral work, McConnell went to Carla Shatz’s lab at Stanford University, funded by the National Eye Institute. McConnell accepted a professorship at Stanford, which she loves.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0777
No. of pages: 22
Minutes: 70

Interview Sessions

Richard Sawyer and Arnold Thackray
7 March 1990
Coral Gables, Florida

Abstract of Interview

Susan McConnell grew up in Crown Point, Indiana, the oldest of four children. Her father was a metallurgical engineer and her mother a nurse. Both were college graduates, as are McConnell’s three siblings. McConnell has always loved animals and interested in animal behavior; she initially wanted to become a horse trainer.

McConnell was a biology major at Harvard University, specializing in animal behavior. She found summer work at the Wisconsin Primate Center, but still questioned the mechanisms of behavior and began thinking in terms of cells. After graduation she worked for Howard Gardner at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reading and thinking about biological constraints on human potential, rather an amorphous concept, helped her define what she wanted to do. She was more interested than ever in cells, especially the neuron, and found that year off critical for formulating her work. McConnell entered Simon LeVay’s lab at Harvard, working in the visual system in mammals and moving with the lab to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. LeVay’s style allowed her opportunities to try a number of unusual experiments, some of which turned out very well, resulting in a number of publications from her graduate work. For postdoctoral work, McConnell went to Carla Shatz’s lab at Stanford University, funded by the National Eye Institute. She had a wonderful time there and finally discovered the excitement science is supposed to generate. She explains how her work differs from Shatz’s though they have similar training and interests.

McConnell accepted a Professorship at Stanford, which she loves. Her graduate school work forms the basis for her current work. She is now funded by the Pew Scholars award, a Searle Scholarship, and money from the National Eye Institute, in addition to an appointment as a Clare Booth Luce Professor. Her lab is small and composed entirely of women, though not by design. McConnell feels a need to critique her work; she wants to develop her field and to do “elegant” science, and she spends very long hours in the lab to do so.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1980 Harvard University AB Biology
1987 Harvard University PhD Neurobiology

Professional Experience

Harvard University

1981 to 1987
Graduate Student, Neurobiology

Salk Institute for Biological Studies

1984 to 1987
Graduate Student, Neurobiology

Stanford University School of Medicine

1987 to 1989
Post Doctorate, Neurobiology

Stanford University

1989 to 1991
Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

Honors

Year(s) Award
1976 to 1980

National Merit Scholar

1979

Joseph Garrison Parker Prize, Harvard University

1979

Phi Beta Kappa

1981 to 1984

National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship

1987 to 1989

National Research Service Award (Eye Institute)

1989

Winter Conference on Brain Research Fellowship

1989 to 1993

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Award 

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Grows up in Crown Point, Indiana, oldest of four children. Father metallurgical engineer, mother nurse; both college-educated. Siblings’ education. Religion. Love of animals and interest in animal behavior.

College Years
4

Harvard University, biology major, animal behavior area. Summer research at Wisconsin Primate Center. Paying for college. Howard Gardner and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Biological constraints on human potential. Growing interest in the cell, especially the neuron; influences on cell that combine to create normal pathway. Critical year for formulating work.

Graduate School Years
8

LeVay’s lab at Harvard, working in visual system in mammals. LeVay’s mentoring style. Move to Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Culture shock. Exciting fields while in San Diego. Publications from graduate work.

Postdoctoral Work
11

Career decisions. Tries postdoc for a year. LeVay’s lab working with adult nervous system. Move to Carla Shatz’s lab at Stanford University. Positive reinforcement, excitement about science in Shatz’s lab. Funding from National Eye Institute.

First Independent Lab
14

Rejects offer of Howard Hughes Medical Institute position at Yale University. Charles Stevens. Accepts assistant professorship at Stanford. Startup package. Various types of funding. Long hours, most at bench. Size and composition of lab. Personal life. Hopes to develop her field. Reevaluating work.

Index
21

About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

Richard Sawyer