Unbridled Enthusiasm

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo

Using his background in computational biology, Robert Huber—the 2015–2016 Helen Putnam Fellow at Radcliffe and a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Bowling Green State University—studies the neurochemicals behind complex behaviors associated with aggression and drug addiction. This year, he’s exploring the role of serotonin in fruit fly aggression, which could shed light on the connection between higher-order behavioral decisions and neural functioning.

Who are your heroes?
I am honored to share a gene pool with individuals who transcend their immediate impulses and follow a path of reason. It amazed me when Nelson Mandela stepped out of the prison that had robbed him of a large portion of his life—and yet he did not give in to justified feelings of fury and revenge. Instead, his kindness, dedication, and sense of responsibility created the center around which a whole new nation was born.

Which trait do you most admire in yourself?
I have unbridled enthusiasm for (often esoteric) interests.

Who is your muse?
Yogi Berra had it completely right: “You can observe a lot by just watching.” The creative inspiration for my work comes from observing animals with an open and inquisitive mind.

Tell us your favorite memory.
Having been present at the birth of my son.

Describe yourself in six words or fewer.
Fanatical environmentalist, passionate scientist, social creature.

What is your most treasured possession?
The fossils and stamps I collected as a kid.

What inspires you?
The opportunity to work with individuals like Professor Ed Kravitz (Harvard Medical School), who never tires of dedicating every fiber of his existence to figuring out how life works.

Were your life to become a motion picture, who would portray you?
Sir Patrick Stewart would be the obvious choice (although he’d have to wear a wig).

Where in the world would you like to spend a month?
Galápagos Islands, Antarctic, Amazon, Okavango Delta—how many choices do I get?

What is your fantasy career?
Having musical talents and sharing them would be great. Alas . . .

What aspect of your work do you most enjoy?
The greatest perk of my job as an academic mentor is the chance to interact with young, motivated students on a daily basis.

Why do you study such a small animal, the fruit fly?
A number of distinct advantages make the fruit fly a great model for the study of fundamental life processes. Our ability to manipulate the organism’s genome offers experimental avenues for exploring how things work and what goes wrong in disease. Thanks to evolution, humans generally share with all life forms the way genetic material contributes to diverse traits, how physiological processes are organized in cells, and how those assemblages confer their magic onto the whole organism. Very few of those functions have originated since the emergence of humans, and we thus share a surprising number of our inner workings with large swaths of the evolutionary ancestry. In flies, I explore the neural and neurochemical mechanisms of motivation, the role of brain chemicals in behavioral coordination, and the causes and consequences of cognitive deficits.

What can animal behavior tell us about ourselves?
Throughout human history, we have been eager to find explanations for the interesting things creatures do—whether they be prey, predators, pets, or smaller siblings. We can’t help but be drawn in by the behavior’s inherent relevance to our own biological roots, and I think I am not unique in my desire to know how human characteristics are ingrained and shaped by our evolutionary heritage. To what degree are laughter, joy, sadness, fear, compassion, language, and wanting to be popular traits that are unique to us? I’d like to explore whether fruit flies can tell us something about these.

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