Tim Tully on Drosophila Neurobiology Meeting 1989: Session on Behavior
  Tim Tully     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Aug 2003

Well, behavior is considered to be soft science. At a meeting like drosophila neurobiology the behavior session is always the last session of the meeting, which means back then it was Sunday morning when half of the people had left. So it’s a throwaway session—only your best buddies are there. It’s just about the end of the meeting, of course, the banquet is Saturday night for these types of meetings. So, Ralph Greenspan and Jeff Hall and Bambos Kyriacou and I have gone to the banquet and drank our wine and then went essentially touring some of the Huntington bars afterwards. Around about midnight or one o’clock, we were again laughing about the hoot of Herman Stellar and his craziness, and these three buddies of mine goaded me into doing some guerilla theater on Herman Stellar the next day during my talk. We decided that what we had to do was make this talk multi-media and figure out a way to use every medium available just for the sake of spoofing Herman Stellar. We stayed up continuing to drink the scotch until about five o’clock in the morning arranging this. We went to bed and got an hour or two of sleep before this 9 a.m. session. Well, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that certainly when the session started at 9 a.m., I and Jeff Hall, who chaired the session, were still drunk. I gave the last talk of the meeting, which means I was going to talk at about 11:30. I sobered up during the course of this session and essentially went from drunk to incredibly hung over in two and a half hours right before my talk. I got this raging headache, I hadn’t had much sleep, and I got up in front of the crowd and started to give this choreographed talk, multi-media spoof on Herman Stellar. I get up and I start talking about my work. And I click to the next slide—this was back in the days of slide projectors—I click to the next slide. And say what I’m going to say, and the next slide and I say what I’m going to say. And I go, “Now, could you give me the slide on the right.” And now the second projector shows up with a slide, and I talk about that. I go now could you go two forward on the left. The slide projector would click two slots and land on the slide that I wanted to talk about and I’d keep talking. Then I’d go could you go three back on the left? Four forward on the right! Five back on the right! Four forward on the left! Three back on the left!” Each time it would land on the appropriate slide and I would talk as if nothing was happening. Well, then as I started saying “five slides forward,” you know how a slide projector will click through each intervening slide and show it for a second. Well, then I injected pictures, slides of various individuals from the audience, like Mike Rosbash dressed in drag at a Halloween party. Seymour Benzer making a funny face in front of a poster of “The Fly” outside of some theater in Cal Tech, etc. I would say nothing about these pictures. They would just flash in front of the audience as I went to my slide choreographed in order without any problem. So then as I was doing this and the audience was chuckling over what was clearly a spoof and as I was struggling through my hangover, I looked in front of me and Jim Watson and Seymour Benzer were sitting in the front row, arms crossed with incredibly stone, not impressed looks on their faces. The voice in my head, as I’m continuing my talk, said unabated, oh my god, you are history. You have just nuked your career. These guys are not liking this. You are a fool!

Well, then panic set in, and interacted with my hangover. I started feeling like I was going to pass out. So then the voice in the back of my head started praying, and it said, oh, god, please if you just let me make it through this talk without passing out, I promise I will never drink before giving a talk again as long as I live. Honest to God! So the talk continues. I get over that five minutes of feeling like I’m about to die. And I get to the end of the talk and I concoct some model. You know, everybody has to have a model. I had no model. We made up a model at 5 a.m., just so that I could pull out an overhead transparency and draw the model to use another medium in this multi-media presentation. We wanted to do that primarily because it would be the end of the meeting and the end of my talk. And I could do the Dennis Miller, “Saturday Night Live” and with that I’m out of here—and draw the little thing that Dennis Miler would always rip his papers up with as he was saying “I’m outta here” on the overhead for everybody to see. So I did that “And I’m outta here” and I walk straight out of the auditorium in Grace, just as Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” started playing over the intercom. And by chance the name of my talk that year in the abstract booklet was “On the Road to a Better Understanding of Learning and Memory.”

So this was completely multi-media. Jeff Hall, who had passed out early that night, did not see me choreograph all this, was completely blown away. And when I got up and marched out of the auditorium to “I’m Outta Here” and Willie Nelson, he stood up as the session chair and walked out with me. And that’s the way that meeting ended that year.

So I made it through. It’s a true story. I’ve never drank before giving a talk again. I’ve honored that prayer, that plea since. Of course—I walked out of there saying, I’m history. This is really bad. Well, about two months go by and I get a call from Jim [Watson]. And Jim says, well, you know we give these noon seminars down here. And I was wondering if you would come down and give a seminar at Cold Spring Harbor Lab about the stuff you talked at that meeting. I said, sure, I’d be glad to.

I was in Boston, outside of Boston. And I drove down that day and it was rainy. I got lost on Long Island. I showed up for a noon seminar in James about ten minutes late. And as I was loading my slides into the slide projector, Jim introduced me as a job candidate for the new neuroscience program that he was starting here at Cold Spring Harbor. That was the first that I had learned of my job candidacy. And, of course, on the tail end of thinking that I had nuked my career by giving that talk, I found the whole thing rather humorous. But that’s sort of how I got here. It’s pretty amazing.

Tim Tully is a molecular geneticist, interested in finding the genetic and biological basis of memory in order to better identify pharmacological and behavioral treatments for memory loss. In 1981, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. Tully joined the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory staff in 1991 to work on discovering genes involved with memory. He became the St. Giles Foundation Professor of Neuroscience and led the Drosophila learning and memory program. In 1998 he founded Helicon Therapeutics, Inc., a development-stage biotechnology firm that works on new therapies for memory loss and other cognition disorders. In June, 2007, Tully left Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to become Helicon's Acting Chief Scientific Officer, and assume a key role in the Michigan-based Dart Foundation as it expands its interest in funding neuroscience research.

His work on the transcriptional factor CREB gave way to the first experimental demonstration of enhanced memory formation in genetically engineered animals. Tully works to identify genes involved with long-term memory formation. Tully has determined that by the regulation of gene expression, new, long-term memories can be formed due to the growth of new synapses.