Scientist & Mentor

“Professor Bear’s Patented Fundamental Brain Tonic & Cure All,” proclaims the Victorian-lettered notice on a bulletin board in Mark Bear’s suite of labs. “For the immediate relief of Scientific Thought, Enlightened Ideas, Secular Reasoning, Humanist Morality, and the General Confusion of having to think for yourself.”

The occasion was a graduate student presentation at the lab—poking fun at Bear’s enthusiasm for mGluR5 as a broad therapeutic target. Among his grad students and postdocs, Bear is known as an encouraging, enthusiastic, and joyful mentor.

Hey-Kyoung Lee was impressed by this side of him even as an undergrad at Brown University. In an “Introduction to Neuroscience” class, Bear began one lecture by wheeling in a cart on which a hospital sheet was draped over large, round objects. A hush of anticipation swept over the students. Bear donned a lab coat and surgical gloves. In a solemn voice, he reminded the students that they were lucky to have materials to demonstrate the brain’s structures, and that it was important to respect the sanctity of the donors.

He then pulled away the sheet. Underneath were honeydew melons adorned with Mr. Potato Head accessories.

“He’s a great lecturer,” says Lee, now associate professor of biology at the University of Maryland. “And he changed my career direction. He turned me on to how interesting it is to study the molecular basis for memory formation. I decided that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

As a graduate student with Bear, Lee worked for two arduous years to figure out a chemical way to depress synapses. “I spent two years getting no data, running experiment after experiment.” Every time she brought her dismal findings to Bear, he showed her promising new directions. “I was finally able to debug the protocol and make it work. It turned out to be a robust protocol, and simple, too. Nowadays, people use it widely, which makes me very happy. It’s all because Mark was inspirational, getting me through the hardships of the project.”

Kim Huber, now associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, as a postdoc performed the decisive laboratory experiments proving the mGluR connection to synaptic weakening. “Even now when I see Mark—and I’ve been out of his lab for 10 years—I still want to tell him about findings in my lab, because he was always so enthusiastic.”

“Science is fun,” Bear says. “If you’re not having fun, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing science.”

-- Madeline Drexler
HHMI Bulletin, May 2011

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