Sackler School of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv
If you asked me what a lens is, I would not know how to answer. What type of lens are you asking about? The lens of an old pair of binoculars, the one on your iPhone camera, or of a magnifying glass you used to play detective with when you were little? As a medical student, when I think about the lens I am struck most by the anatomical lens. With her biconcavity, she plays gate keeper to images, exerting her presence as the primary processor of light. She is the first to decide how to refract the incoming image, soon to be delivered as pure sensory afferent signals through the optic nerve en route to the occipital cortex.
When I remove my white coat, my concept of a lens changes with it. The idea of a lens morphs into an abstract entity—a vantage point through which I view the world. A collective consciousness of the people I’ve encountered, places I’ve seen, and times I’ve contemplated what it is that I think and why I think it. For me, mentors have always played an integral role in helping me chisel away at shaping that consciousness. One such mentor, Dr. Norman Adler, passed away earlier in the year and I’d like to share a few thoughts about how he has helped me as a medical student.
Dr. Adler was my professor at Yeshiva University under whom I studied Psychobiology and Neuropsychology, and my faculty advisor for a group of students who were interested in learning about Neuroscience. We created our own Neuroscience Society not too dissimilar from the students in Dead Poets Society, rallying around Adler like the students of Welton Academy rallied around John Keating. Adler reveled in our reveling by helping us host events and inviting his colleagues to give intimate lectures to interested students and faculty. Scientists, doctors, and religious thinkers such as Dr. Donald Pfaff, Dr. Sam Sacher, Dr. Jonathan Berger and Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky were just a few of the invitees. As a neuroscientist, Dr. Adler was interested in exposing us to a wide breadth of science from neuro-economics, psychology of religion and cognitive neuroscience. Adler recognized that each student had their own calling and that we each had to find our own way based on what we found captivating, so he invited a broad range of speakers. This was one of his greatest attributes as my mentor—he was never trying to make clones of himself, rather he sought to help each individual to evolve.
As a student, listening to him describe how he felt about neuroscience powerfully impacted my personal approach to my studies. Adler would poignantly describe neuroscience as the most unique of the sciences, not to say that it was superior, but that it was different. It was not like cell biology which looks at the nature of different cell types throughout the body, or like microbiology which looks at the bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that share in inhabiting the earth with us. Nor was it like biochemistry which looks at the enzymes and molecules responsible for mechanisms of metabolism and cell function that give rise to greater structure. Neuroscience was unique because it was interdisciplinary. A culmination of blood vessels and brain tissue responsible for innervating every aspect of the body, every organ, every fiber, the stomach, the heart, sympathetic and parasympathetic, somatic and autonomic, nicotinic and muscarinic. The brain is responsible for balance and memory and hormonal regulation, and temperature and sleep. It is an all encompassing organ and field of pursuit. In Adler’s realm, to be a neuroscientist was not to know the brain, but to know all aspects of the brain—the embryology, physiology, histology, biochemistry, epidemiology, pathology, pharmacology, organic and inorganic chemistry, physics, and calculus. Looking back on the first time he articulated that thought to me, I now envision the scene in Margaret Edson’s Wit, when Dr. E.M. Ashford, great scholar of John Donne’s holy sonnets criticizes a young Olivia Bearing for failing to use the Gardner Edition of the text—“This is metaphysical poetry, not the modern novel. The standards of scholarship and critical reading… which one would apply to any other text are simply insufficient. The effort must be total for the results to be meaningful.” Witnessing the level of excellence and academic scholarship he held himself to allowed us as students to set our own lofty goals and ambitions, again shaping our own outlook on just how much we could expect of ourselves to know and accomplish.
While Adler taught me a lot academically, the most valuable thing I learned from him was to ask better questions and think outside the box. One of my favorite examples was the time our homework assignment was to go outside and count how may windows there were on a certain building on campus. When we came to class with our answers the next day, everyone was certain in their count, and no two peoples’ counts were the same. Adler loved these types of exercises because they cleverly demonstrated two things: 1) people look at the world differently, and 2) if you don’t define your terms (what is a window), then you can’t begin having a conversation.
Adler always reminded me of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little prince—perpetually curious and continuously striving. This was the ultimate blessing in a mentor because everything anyone said had substance. There is a famous saying in the Talmud that says, “Despise no man and deem nothing impossible for there is no man who does not have his time and no thing that does not have its place.” Adler was the master of this, respecting everyone’s opinions and learning something from everyone.
While Adler held himself to high standards and took academic scholarship very seriously, he also carried himself with a sense of congeniality. In my final class with Adler in my junior year of college, Adler assigned me another assignment that seemed to have nothing to do with the class he was teaching. I was to prepare John Keats’ piece Ode on a Grecian Urn. In class that day he went line by line through the poem, dissecting its sentences and phrases and words and letters and punctuation. Only later did it occur to me that this poem had everything to do with neuroscience because it had everything to do with the outlook on life Adler was trying to convey to us—that everything is interconnected. The humanities, he sought to demonstrate, was not individual pursuits of philosophy, art, science, music and history but again a collective understanding at the crossroads of them all. I’ll never forget how he found himself on the verge of joyful tears as he recited the final lines:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Though shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”