Thursday, July 31, 2008

Genealogies, of the academic variety


Neurotree is a really cool website that aims to create and store the training relationships between neuroscientists. From it, I learned that on one side of my family, the Bean side, I am 6 steps from Charles Sherrington (below, from Wikimedia), the English physiologist who coined the term "nociceptor" (yup, I actually read his book The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, where he used that term. How come that wasn't on the damn book list meme, eh?). Sherrington shared the 1932 Nobel with Lord Adrian for their work on neuronal physiology, and trained three Nobelists as well: Eccles, Granit and Florey.

The other half of my tree, the Clapham side (hmm, I am Bean-Clapham spawn! Something about that makes me chuckle. In an uncomfortable way), brings me to a distinct group of physiologists, with Erwin Neher (gulp, another Laureate), up to Haldan Keffer Hartline (another Laureate) , who himself trained with Werner Heisenberg!. Wow, I didn't know that! For those of you keeping score at home, that's another Laureate, this time in Physics.

Great; now I can fail to live up to my academic parents' expectations, as well as my real life ones! :) Ok, my real parents always said they'd be happy with whatever I chose to do. Hopefully my academic parents agree!

The other cool thing about Neurotree is the cluster analysis of neuroscientists, which reflects the relatedness of the various subdisciplines within neuroscience. Having some way of tracking the changes in this through time would be pretty cool. I wonder if you had the information about how those clusters changed through time, would you be able to pinpoint the early papers and workers who led this shift? They are real pioneers of new clusters. Could you also tie that into people's published works? I wonder how those papers that signal the birth of a new cluster would rate on the citation analysis metrics some people are so worried about?

Now anyone can browse the tree, so go check it out. If you're a neuroscientist and haven't been added, then go make an account and fill in some details.

12 comments:

NeuroStudent said...

I love NeuroTree! It's the best procrastination tool in the world...I like to just randomly select a branch and browse through it seeing who trained with who, etc.

It's actually pretty handy for being able to tell if a given lab has a tendency for it's lab members to go on and have their own labs if that's something you'd like to do, etc.

I'm also 6 steps from Sherrington...Pretty much everyone in neurophys can be connected back to him at some point, but it can be fun to see how many steps back it is.

NeuroStudent said...

wait, no...I just checked the tree again...I'm 5 steps from Sherrington, apparently I can't count in my head.

Drugmonkey said...

this is not just a ainititerestin timewaster. this is a valuable networking tool. just saying.

Nat Blair said...

Definitely true DM. One of the 8 bazillion social networking, Facebook for Scientists sites out there, Epernicus, incorporates something similar, but I don't think it shows the extended tree (i.e., it shows your parents, maybe children, but not necessarily your sibs). Plus there is the fact that there are ~14K names on Neurotree, which makes it a lot more useful.

@NS - Good point on using it to pinpoint those people who have trained lots of people who go on to train others. A good example is Dick Tsien, one of my grandfathers (...Jack begat Tsien who begat Bean who begat Blair. Hmm, again with the uncomfortable laugh).

Or Rob Malenka, who I didn't realize was quite so prolific.

Alex J. said...

I love NeuroTree too! But Nat you have to admit there's a whole lot of inbreeding in our family tree!! Luckily we have to worry less about the propagation of genetic diseases than social ones:)

River Tam said...

I'm very envious. The math people also have something like this too. I wish ecology did...sniff, we're always behind on all the cool stuff!

Nat Blair said...

@Alex - *taps fingers on desk, producing 6 distinct beats* Inbreeding? Why, whatever do you mean?

The inbreeding gets worse as you go up in the tree, to earlier people (which isn't surprising I suppose). A lot of people seemed to do further training with someone who did trained in the same lab as they did. Hmm...reminds me of someone...

@river tam - The neurotree people are actually trying to populate the entire academic space, and are looking for people who are interested in heading up other fields. Presumably they could help you, using the same code and providing server space? That would be pretty cool indeed. Check it out here: http://academictree.org/

River Tam said...

Thanks Nat! I checked it out and got a kick out of the "fields" currently represented...I mean "Drosophila genetics"?

I think the one academic family tree idea is pretty cool. When I snooped around the Neuroscience tree I found one of my academic ancestors on there.

Alex J. said...

Nat, you got extra digits?.... Lucky! I just got webbed toes and lobster claws:)

Looking at Neurotree reminds me that Neuroscience is one big dysfunctional family with all the makings of an epic soap opera; domineering parents, feuding siblings vying to be the head of the family, incestuous relationships and manuscript abuse.

An interesting lineage to take a peek at is that of Lily and Yuh Nung Jan. They have the championship family tree as far as I'm concerned: Niels Bohr, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Max Delbruck, Seymour Benzer, Jacob and Monod, Lawrence Bragg, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner, etc. on one side and Sherrington, Eccles and Kuffler on the other!!! Wow!

Talk about the pressure of trying to live up to your parent's expectations!

juniorprof said...

I win!!!! I'm 3 from Sherrington. And 3 from Ramon y Cajal. Seriously though, gotta love the neurotree! Good stuff...

So, mister close (but not so close really) to the great nociceptor coinage man, are you still into pain enough to be headed to IASP in Glasgow? If so, shoot me an email, I'll buy you a pint...

Isis the Scientist said...

I did this once for myself within my own field as a part of a project while I was in grad school. Turns out I am related to a bunch of crazy drunks.

Nat Blair said...

Turns out I am related to a bunch of crazy drunks.

Given some of your posts earlier this week, apparently you didn't fall far from the tree.