With some of his earliest memories being out in the garden, in the woods, and together with the wildlife around his grandparents’ cabin, Dr. Mooney has a lifelong passion for biology.
In college, Dr. Mooney majored in ecology and evolutionary biology. While textbook learning was one of the core components in college education, he found himself going back to the original experiments and asking why certain popular scientific concepts were supported by observations in the first place. Some experiments, such as that of Meselson and Stahl’s determination that DNA-replication was semi-conservative, struck him with their clarity, but he also realized that many higher-ordered, complex, network-oriented systems such as the brain and the ecosystem cannot be explained by one single reductionist approach. “I don’t understand so many things that I really have to try to figure them out,” Dr. Mooney shared, “I never thought that I would end up in a place I am now, [but] what wasn’t understood compelled me to get to this point.”
From his childhood to his research career, Dr. Mooney has worked with a variety of animals––leafhoppers, butterflies, moths, frogs, snakes, fish, and songbirds. “Whatever I can see close up, I am really engrossed by,” he said. In terms of neuroscience research on learning, nevertheless, he has a special love for songbirds, an “amazingly powerful system” according to him, where juvenile “pupils” learn to sing by copying songs produced by adult songbird “tutors.” By studying such cultural transmission of vocal behavior from tutor to pupil, he sees insights for understanding how humans transmit various behaviors, including language, speech dialects, art, music, and other cultural idiosyncrasies that are fundamental to being human.
Besides science, another layer to Dr. Mooney’s fascination with bird songs and auditory neuroscience comes from his interest in music. As someone who loves biology and music as well, I was amazed to learn that Dr. Mooney went to San Francisco Conservatory of Music for a few years after college graduation. When asked why he made this decision, he shared that he grew up in a family that really enjoyed music and emphasized music education. The amount of change in the musical spectrum in the US during 1964-68 and his love for Laurindo Almeida’s guitar music drove him to take guitar lessons when he was ten. All through high school and college, he struggled to balance science and music. Thus, he promised himself that he would spend at least a year or two after college dedicating himself fully to music, which he did when he graduated from Yale. During the two years he studied with the renowned classical guitarist David Tanenbaum at the conservatory, he spent every spare moment with his guitar and practiced late into the night. Although he eventually decided that he didn’t want to play music in exclusion to everything else (he really missed science), he played a lot and still views guitar as an important piece of his life.
Having been in science ever since, Dr. Mooney is still very excited when he talks about this discipline. He believes that science can “explain things out of our own experience and our own lifetime.” What is more, he has “increasingly come to enjoy the process of watching people become really proficient, helping them become adept and do sophisticated work that goes beyond what [he] could do [him]self.”
“How much fun to have people working [in neuroscience] with me!” he exclaimed.
Thinking back to his own graduate school career, Dr. Mooney laughed as he shared his most embarrassing lab experience. In 1984, the lab he was in just purchased a very expensive computer monitor. Intrigued by a friend’s trick––distorting the beams on an oscilloscope screen with a magnet–– he tried the same trick on the lab’s new monitor. Not appreciating that the design of the monitor was different from an oscilloscope, he left a huge purple mark on the screen. Luckily, the lab technician managed to remove the mark right before the PI walked in. But still, Dr. Mooney drew his lesson from this incident, “Don’t screw with really valuable equipment until you understand how it works!”
Personally, one of my biggest struggles with biology is killing animals to study them. I asked Dr. Mooney, “A lot of people come into this study out of their love and appreciation for life. But sometimes, experiments require biologists to actively end other animals’ lives. Do you find that upsetting or hard to deal with?” Dr. Mooney gave me the most inspiring response I’ve heard so far, “Yes, it is,” he said, “If there is a way to understand the brain without using invasive or ultimately destructive approaches, then that should be used by all means.” He talked about how it is hard and sometimes impossible to understand the neural level of brain structures without teasing it apart, and how studying bird brains, for instance, can teach us a lot about neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. Yet, he emphasized, “Mindfulness in all things is important. Being a good scientist, one has to be mindful what the cost of the experiment entails.” He believes “the human condition is one in which we are driven to understand the world where we live in, and it is something we can do in a way that other animals can’t. There will be a salvation for our own species that will include pursuing that drive to understand the world…We have to come to value more highly how complicated and amazingly beautiful all living things are.”
To all students who aspire to become scientists, Dr. Mooney encouraged, “Find out what you do like. If you really set your eyes on certain goals, you’ll get there.” If he could, he would tell his younger self, “know that you’ll get where you want to get to in time, although you can’t know that for certain when you’re on that path. Have confidence. By having confidence, you will enjoy where you are instead of being too anxious about where you will be.”