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Chasing Memory / First of four parts

One man's epic quest for understanding

What happens when we encounter a new experience that enables us to recall it later at will? And what goes wrong when we can't? Gary Lynch has spent decades seeking the answers.

August 19, 2007|Terry McDermott | Times Staff Writer

The duties of a university scientist leading his own lab are manifold. Foremost, the existence of the lab depends on his ability to fund it. He is an employee of the university, but also a profit center. He must attract grants, from which the university takes a significant cut, to pay the basic expenses of his laboratory: salaries, equipment, supplies.

The overwhelming majority of grant money comes from the federal government, most through the National Institutes of Health. The competition for money is intense and often leaves normally placid scientists swearing like deckhands. Lynch, whose lab has been funded mostly by the federal government at around $1 million per year for decades, was no exception.

In part because of the constant threat of extinction, neuroscience labs -- even those that don't have Lynch in them -- are not the happiest places. There is tension and fear and jealousy and a near-constant sense that careers are about to be made or, more commonly, missed. Such fraught situations call for careful, considered management.

Due to a lack of interest, or possibly ability, which can be the same thing, Lynch seemed to run his lab like a man on a midnight beer run, running pell-mell down the aisle, throwing things, many of them unhealthful, into the cart and hoping there would be enough for everybody when he got back to the house.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
"Chasing memory": The glossary accompanying the Aug . 19 memory article in Section A defined genes as "strings of amino acids that make up an organism's genome, a sort of blueprint from which the organism is built. Individual genes are strings of amino acids; each string contains instructions for building a particular protein." The definition should have said: "Genes: strings of DNA that form a blueprint from which the organism is built. Each gene contains instructions for building a particular protein."

Which is to say, although it was obvious to him, it wasn't always clear to others what Lynch was up to.

In addition to providing money, the lead scientist, in the academic world called the principal investigator, is the intellectual leader of the team. Lynch did very few experiments himself, but designed, assigned or approved virtually all of what everyone else did. He would hate to admit it, but he was a dictator.

The 'free-ride guy'

The youngest son in a disintegrating Irish Catholic working-class family in Wilmington, Del., Lynch earned scholarships to Catholic high school, then -- "always a free-ride guy" -- the University of Delaware.

The ride ended abruptly when he was kicked out for partying. He worked odd jobs until he was readmitted. Because Lynch's main interest in college was to have a good time, something had to change. When he came back, he changed majors from engineering to psychology for, he said, two reasons -- engineering students spent weekends building electric circuits and, as important, there were very few girls among them. Lynch chose psychology, he said, because there were plenty of girls and no weekend work.

Lynch, in spite of his professed laziness, excelled and earned a graduate scholarship to Princeton, where he quickly determined he was much more interested in mucking around inside the head than standing outside it and asking questions.

He earned his doctorate in psychology in 1968, just three years after enrolling. Soon after, he received a job offer from UC Irvine. The university was so new it hadn't yet graduated its first class.

The offer was to teach in the psychobiology department. Lynch had not completed a single college course in biology. (Too many details, he said.) He had never been to California. But one of the first of those now ubiquitous lists of the best universities had been recently published. UC Berkeley ranked No. 1 in the world.

"The thrill I felt was -- it's the people's university," said Lynch. "That's a public university. Oxford, Cambridge are down here; Harvard's down here; Princeton's down here. The best university in the world is a public university. I thought, 'Man, we are so on the right track.' That inspired me. . . . I thought, 'This is it; this is finally it.' In the face of people working on great things together in the sunshine, in the eternal summer of California, privilege falls away. What could be more beautiful?"

Irvine then was not far removed from its ranch-land past. There were cattle grazing on the hills above the campus and cowboys chasing them. Almost overnight, the university became a center of brain research.

Neuroscience, too, was young, and there was a sense broadly shared that the human brain, one of the great frontiers of science, was about to be colonized -- although from what direction or by whose army was unclear. Biologists, chemists, anatomists, psychologists, mathematicians, even philosophers and physicists, all suddenly calling themselves neuroscientists, plunged into the field. No one knew where they were going, and no one wanted to be left behind.

Memory as a subject of inquiry and wonder is as old, perhaps, as man. The ancient Greeks variously proposed that memory and other mental processes were a function of the heart, the lungs or the brain, which eventually became the agreed-upon site. Beyond locale, however, little was learned about the processes of mental activity for the next 2,000 years.

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