Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Neurophysiology with David Attwell at University College London
  Marc Tessier-Lavigne     Biography    
Recorded: 11 Sep 2008

It was in neuroscience, in neurophysiology. I focused on mechanisms of information processing in the retina. The great attraction of working with David—coming from a physics and math background—but becoming more and more fascinated with biology and neuroscience, I was quite naturally drawn to try to apply the principles of physics and mathematics and information processing to the nervous system. What David was doing was really deconstructing the retina, the neural tissue at the back of the eye trying to understand how the neural circuit is organized to take the incoming visual image and process that image to get it ready for packaging and sending down the optic nerve to the brain. Issues of enhancing signal to noise ratio, enhancing contrast, all of the things that a computer would do if it were taking a visual image and packaging it the eye does as well. And what he was interested in was how are the properties of the cell are and their connections organized to achieve that. So I joined him to do that focusing on the one hand on characterizing the biological and pharmacological properties of the cells and the synapses but then also modeling to understand how the visual information was processed by that neural network.

We made some progress. On the cell biological side we made some progress in understanding how photo receptors communicate to the next cell, the bipolar cell, the photoreceptor can elucidate a positive response in some and a negative response in others. And the question is how is that achieved and we obtained some insights into that. Opening the ion channels in one and closing the ion channels in the other. And then some progress and some understanding how noise can be reduced and signals enhanced by passage through that first synapse.

Narrator: A very classic topic for UCL physiology. Is Bernard Katz still there?

He was! Bernard Katz was there. Andrew Huxley was there as well. Oh, and Paul Fatt was there. So they were all still there towards the end of their careers. But it was an exciting time in addition to of course many, many younger and very vibrant and active people. UCL was really a hotbed of neuroscience when I was there in the 80s. It was really a great place.

Narrator: So you really did make a large transition there from almost a theoretical to practically an experimentally based to cell biology, developmental biology “wet” lab.

Correct, and I credit and I should say that there is an amusing anecdote – I credit David Atwell with that because I was very much drawn to work with him because he was one of the few people who actually was doing very serious theory but very close to the biology, doing experiments and so forth. When I joined him I told him that what I was really interested in the theory and he said, that’s great, that’s all fine and good, but you have to do experiments as well because at the end of the day that’s what you need to do if you want to get a job. That was when I was with David. So it was the experimental work really there that drew me in and made me become more and more fascinated with the biology of the nervous system to the point where I decided to not focus on theoretical issues and information processing. I really just focused on the mechanisms through which the brain gets wired up and development.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a pioneer in developmental neurobiology, is currently president of The Rockefeller University in New York, where he heads the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair, and oversees 70 independent laboratories that operate within the university. He is the first industry executive to serve as president of Rockefeller. He joined Genentech, Inc. in 2003 as Senior Vice President, Research Drug Discovery, and was promoted to Executive Vice President, Research Drug Discovery in June, 2008. In that capacity, he was responsible for research management of all therapeutic areas of research, including a team of 1,400 researchers and his own research lab. His research at Genentech on the development of the brain uncovered details of how Alzheimer's disease is triggered.

Born in Canada in 1959, he was also raised in Belgium and the UK, and has lived in the US since 1990. Marc completed an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from McGill University (B.Sc., 1980), and a second undergraduate degree in philosophy and physiology from Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar, B.A., 1982). Prior to earning his Ph.D. at University College London (1986) in neurophysiology, Marc became the national coordinator of the Canadian Student Pugwash Organization, which promotes awareness and action relating to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and other ethical implications of science and technology policy. During his postdoctoral work at UCL and Columbia University, Marc’s research focus became developmental neurobiology. From 1991 to 2001 he was on the faculty at the University of California, San Francisco.

From 1994 to 2003 he was also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His famous discovery of the netrins (a class of proteins involved in axon guidance) occurred in 1994 while he was at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2000 he co-founded the biopharmaceutical company Renovis. From 2001-2003 he was the Susan B. Ford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of Biological Sciences and a professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University.

Among the many awards Marc has received for his work in neuroscience are the McKnight Investigator Award (1994), the Ameritec Prize (1995), the Foundation IPSEN Prize for Neuronal Plasticity (shared, 1996), the Viktor Hamburger Award, International Society for Developmental Neuroscience (1997), the Wakeman Award for spinal cord injury research (shared, 1998), the Robert Dow Neuroscience Award (2003), and the Reeve-Irvine Research Medal (shared, 2006). Tessier-Lavigne has been elected a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences in the United Kingdom.

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