Phi Beta Kappa speaker discusses building a brain

Photo by Cam Williams (C’22).

By Cam Williams
Contributing Writer

Susan Birren, a renowned neurobiologist and former dean at Brandeis University, visited Sewanee on Tuesday, January 22, to deliver an informative lecture regarding how developmental disorders affect different pieces of the brain, and what steps we can take to understand them. These developmental disorders include everything from autism to schizophrenia, and her lecture covered how they arise, what symptoms they show, and how to best diagnose them.

An incredible amount of students and faculty alike were able to attend, filling all of Gailor auditorium, including standing room. The lecture was not just attended by biology and neuroscience majors, but also by Sewanee students and faculty from all departments. While the lecture was complex, that did not stop people from all corners of academia trying to learn about the human mind.

When asked why she is vigilant about educating people about developmental disorders, Birren had an admirable response. “Simply because it affects so many individuals, it’s a part of all of our lives,” she said. “When I teach my course on autism, and I ask people whether they’ve had a personal interaction with someone who has autism, huge numbers of hands go up.”

While she is incredibly optimistic about teaching people about autism, she did want to remind those in attendance to be wary of false medical information surrounding autism. In America, the anti-vaccination movement has become significantly more prominent in recent years. Anti-vax proponents rely on the idea that vaccinations cause autism, and the hurtful notion that they would rather have their child be exposed to a serious and possibly fatal illness rather than develop autism.

Birren condemned this view of the causes of autism. “There is a vast amount of scientific evidence that shows the opposite result,” Birren said, “and it’s dangerous because it convinces people that they shouldn’t vaccinate their children, as well as teaching them to treat autism as a disease, which isn’t the case.”

On a more positive note, she did have a word or two to impart to young and blossoming neuroscientists and neurobiologists at Sewanee. “Everybody should figure out what it is they’re excited about, there are lots of wonderful things you can do with any undergraduate or graduate degree, even an M.D., as long as you find your niche and pursue it with passion.”