Neurobiology Professor Shares Wisdom

For many UC Irvine students undertaking science degrees, navigating a large research university is no easy task. I asked Dr. Norman Weinberger about his research, how to succeed in the sciences as an undergraduate and what makes UCI special.

78-year-old Dr. Weinberger is a Research Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior in the School of Biological Sciences at UC Irvine. He is currently researching learning and memory, specifically memory encoding and the auditory system. He has also studied music and the brain. One way to understand memory encoding is this: when a person hears and listens to music, new neurons are “recruited” to represent that song. Thus, the more important a sound becomes, the more cortical cells represent that sound.

He is also working on impressing new memories into the brains of rats. When memories get stored in the brain, a chemical called Acetylcholine (ACh) is released and promotes the storage, created in the nucleus basalis (site for the largest collection of cholinergic, or ACh-rich neurons). Once ACh is present, it gets transported to the entire cerebral cortex. To do this, an experimenter plays a tone to the rat, then measures its heart rate or respiration and, lastly, studies that response.

Since 2002, he and other researchers have worked to fully understand the process of new memory creation. They have begun the second phase of research, which is to discover the neural mechanisms by which ACh achieves this remarkable feat. So far, the evidence shows that it does so by getting brain cells to work together, rather than separately.

Courtesy of Biological Sciences

Courtesy of Biological Sciences

Dr. Weinberger is a Fellow of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Psychological Science. He was also a founder member of the UC Irvine faculty as well as the Director of the Music and Science Information Computer Archive (MuSICA), which is no longer active.

He was born in Cleveland, Ohio and studied at the University of Michigan before transferring to Case Western Reserve University, where he completed his undergraduate, masters and graduate degrees. He holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. At age 19, he took an undergraduate psychology course in neurobiology which sparked his interested in the brain. He dedicated three years of his postdoctoral at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute to study Brain and Behavior. This led to his job at UCI in 1965, in what was then called the Department of Psychobiology.

His advice to incoming Biological Sciences Majors is simple: go to the library. He encourages them to read broadly outside of biology, because “a broadly educated person is much more able to solve problems and be innovative than a narrowly educated person.” As an undergraduate, Dr. Weinberger felt motivated by his marriage to achieve things. He would study and read bound journals and psychological abstracts in the library, and this helped him go from a B- average to straight A’s in the sciences.

When asked to share his thoughts on personal and professional setbacks, he said, “You should expect them. A lot of setbacks happen when there are situations out of our control. It is really important to think of others besides ourselves and to help others get through their [setbacks] as well.” His father passed away suddenly when he was 17, and he feels that he would have gone to law school instead of pursue neurobiology had he lived longer.

Dr. Weinberger thoroughly enjoys being a Research Professor at UC Irvine. “It’s a blast,” he said. “I get to try to figure out how the brain works, among knowledgeable, stimulating, interesting people ranging from undergrads, graduates, postdocs and faculty.” He sees it as a very exciting atmosphere, and better than working in an isolated place. “I learn something every day,” he adds.

When I asked him about what he thought was interesting about a research university, he said, “We have a very serious role in society. We are charged with figuring out how everything works—new knowledge, new understanding. That is not easy, but it is absolutely essential to society.”

Ultimately, students undertaking science majors have the potential for success. The secret? Start early like Dr. Weinberger did.