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Lateral thinking

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Left: Giorgio Vallortigara,
Lesley Rogers
and Elisa Rigosi

Emeritus Professor, Lesley Rogers, from the University of New England, was asked about a career in scientific research that has led to revelations about lateralized brains in birds and other species and about her election to the Australian Academy of Science.     
Lesley Rogers grew up in Adelaide, the daughter of a kindergarten teacher (her mother) and a master carpenter and builder (her father). She was always interested in animals - she grew up with dogs and chickens and raised a wombat - but when she first went to university she wanted to specialise in physics. She had come first or second in the whole state in that subject and was probably the first woman in Australia to gain such spotlight.Today, she muses, this would be a cause for celebration but back in the 1960s it was more a sign of some wrongdoing on the part of a female (for a ‘girl’ should not engage in such subjects) than a sign of exceptional talent. She and one other student were the only females among over 100 males in Year 1 Physics and were subjected to unceasing bullying and public humiliation in tutorials and the lecture room by male lecturers (some of whom rose to great prominence) and male students alike.

As a result, both gave up their studies in physics at the end of the first year. Lesley instead enrolled in another course, changing focus to zoology, combining chemistry and biology in her degree, which she completed with first class Honours, leading her to consider a PhD in zoology and winning a scholarship to do so.    
She commenced a PhD at Adelaide University but then was awarded one of the very few coveted scholarships for study overseas available at that time. This enabled her to undertake PhD studies at Harvard University.
However, her arrival at Harvard in the 1960s (as a 21-year-old) was a mixture of excitement and absolute culture shock. Training at postgraduate level in science was rather different in the United States compared with Australia.
She first had to complete multiple choice tests, a format never used in Australian universities at the time and flunked because she wrote things in the margin to explain her points but these were not counted.

What rather surprised her there was that most US students in her PhD stream had completed liberal arts studies programs (meaning a wide-ranging number of subjects in the arts) rather than (as in Australia) an undergraduate degree focused on science.     
As a result, she was back into coursework rather than research, a rather great disappointment although there was much to learn too. Another difficulty was that the Australian scholarship had to be topped up by a teaching fellowship and hence an obligation to teach. Course costs are offset by an obligation to deliver no less than 20 hours of teaching per week on top of her coursework load, meaning that, with teaching preparation, she was thrown into a full time job but was expected to compete with students in her courses without any work commitments. Hence, these glamorous scholarships to the then best university in the world were less than glamorous for the uninitiated overseas students whose parents were not rich enough to pay for course fees. Still, Lesley coped quite well and made lots of friends. Some of the friendships formed at Radcliffe have lasted a lifetime.

There was another upside and an unusual privilege in that some of her tutors were of world-renown and her own supervisor was the highly respected George Wald, who subsequently received the Nobel Prize for vision. However, politics intervened. It was the time of anti Vietnam war protests and Lesley was right amongst the protesters, a fact, once identified by the authorities, usually did not only lead to being expelled from Harvard but also led to deportation.    
Hence, Lesley Rogers’ studies at Harvard University came to an abrupt end after one and a half years when she had been found guilty of actively protesting against the Vietnam War (in the mid 60s). Fortuitously, on the same day she was told she had to leave or be deported, she was offered a research position at the New England Medical Centre Hospital in Boston and granted a temporary work permit, applied for by her new employer. One of the papers emerging from her work at the hospital together with her supervisor Marshall Kaplan became widely cited as one of the important articles in the prestigious Lancet. For a while, then, Lesley was able to stay on in USA and even obtained an immigration visa.

However, her dream to conduct her own research was only briefly put aside. Lesley had already decided to move to England and did so a year later.     
Arriving in London, she first taught Biology to students in a secondary modern school. It was a major shift from an elite tertiary institution in the USA to a rough working class school full of kids with boundless energy and basically no science knowledge or interest at all. It became a battle of daily survival but she has also some fond memories of these days.

She chose Sussex University for her PhD studies as it offered higher degree supervision in animal behaviour, becoming a student of Professor Richard Andrew, a well-respected ethologist. At that time, ethology was essentially a European discipline, springing from the research of the Nobel Prize winners Konrad Lorenz, Karl Von Frisch and Niko Tinbergen, who studied the behaviour of animals in their natural environments and in the laboratory.     
At Sussex University Lesley began by looking at the role in visual processing of the nerves to the retina from the isthmo-optic nucleus in the brain of the chicken. She discovered that one of the functions of these efferent nerves was to modulate the sensitivity of cells in the retina so that vision could adapt rapidly to allow the bird to see into dark areas and to detect small objects in the posterior field of vision.
She went on to discover that, if chicks were injected with the sex hormone testosterone, their behaviour changed so that they tended to focus on a particular task or type of stimulus and were not easily distracted. For example, given red and yellow grains scattered on the floor, untreated chicks peck in short runs on one colour and then the other. Treatment with testosterone meant that the chickens made a long run of pecking at grains of one colour and then at the other colour. Such locking on to one type of stimulus may be part of the reason why adult males persist in following a female, eventually to copulate with her.

Lesley Rogers finally returned to Australia after an absence of 7 years when she gained a tutoring position at Monash University where she worked with Professor Richard Mark, who was well known for his research in neurobiology. When he moved to the Australian National University (ANU) Lesley Rogers followed.    
One very important discovery that Professor Rogers made was in the mid to late 70s at ANU. Up until then it was thought that only humans had lateralised brains. When a drug that was known to block long-term memory formation (cycloheximide) was injected into the right hemisphere of the brain, there was no effect, but when the drug was injected into the left side, memory was blocked. This proved that chickens had lateralised brains.

Later Richard Andrew would show that such laterality could be demonstrated easily, just by placing a patch over one eye, (ie without the injection of any drug), a technique that researchers have used to show that many different types of behaviour are lateralised (performed better using one eye than the other).     
For example, chicks injected with testosterone showed increased levels of simulated copulation when a patch was placed over their right eye but not when the patch was over their left eye. By contrast, tasks which required categorising objects, such as sorting and selecting food grains from pebbles, could be performed when the patch was on the left eye but not the right.

Such lateralised brains are now known to have been characteristic of vertebrates even from the earliest times, putting paid to the widely held, but incorrect, view that this is an important characteristic unique to the human brain and essential to superior cognitive abilities.    
Indeed, the basic pattern of lateralised brains is similar across all classes of vertebrates, from fish and toads to birds and mammals.
The left hemisphere is used when the animal is relaxed and has to focus on a particular, learnt task and the right hemisphere when the animal is emotional (eg fearful) and is attending to the world around if for any small changes, including the approach of a predator.

In other work Professor Rogers showed that the final days before the eggs hatched were crucial to development of brain lateralisation in chickens.     
In this short period before an egg is hatched the embryo twists and occludes its left eye, allowing the right eye to receive light that comes in through the eggshell. This asymmetrical light stimulation leads to some of the lateralised visual functions that develop once the bird has hatched. Eggs incubated in the dark during these days before hatching do not receive such asymmetrical light stimulation and do not develop lateralised visual behaviour.

 In other words: brains (and probably the whole organism generally) were not just responding to genetic codes but their very structure and function could be altered by a small specific but significant alteration in environmental conditions. Such a startling discovery contributed to Professor Rogers being elected to the Australian Academy of Science, a fitting award for such a breakthrough in scientific knowledge...the combined effects of genetics, environment (presence of light) and developmental timing.

After working at the ANU, Lesley later returned to Monash University to work in the Pharmacology Department but always just in temporary positions (an appointment strategy most females had to endure). When she was finally offered a tenured position at the University of New England, she accepted it immediately. For a scientist, it is vital to be able to have a stable laboratory and to be able to build it up to specifications of a scholar’s own research needs.

For the first time, she saw a chance to make this happen on a more permanent basis.    
Shortly after moving to Armidale, NSW, she was awarded a DSc by Sussex University. As it turned out, this was to be her last move and all her work (and promotions) were generated from her laboratory, called Brain and Behaviour initially and then, with university permission, recast as a Research Centre called the Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour in which postgraduate students could obtain higher degrees in animal studies both in the laboratory and in the field. She was later joined by Professor Kaplan making this a vibrant and internationally known centre for the best part of two decades.
Lesley Rogers now has emeritus status at this university, the very first and so far only woman to be awarded professorial emeritus status at UNE in all its history.

Over time her long-standing and meticulous work showing lateralisation and their respective functions in a wide range of species contributed to her elevation to the Academy having helped to create a new and vibrant field of research.    
It has its own journals and an army of researchers worldwide who have recognised that knowledge of lateralised functions in the brain is crucial to understanding the brain and behaviour as a whole.
Now lateralisation has been shown to exist in invertebrates.
For example, ongoing work by Professor Rogers and Professor Giorgio Vallortigara has looked at bees and how they remember particular odours associated with food. In the short term (up to six hours), they use the right antenna but for long-term memory they use their left antenna, again, demonstrating lateralised brains. While laterality is widespread among animals, different species may achieve this in different ways. However the goal seems to be the same. Laterality of brain function makes the brain more efficient since 'delegating' different kinds of function to different sides limits wasteful duplication of available neuronal capacity. For Emeritus Professor Lesley Rogers, lateral thinking has always been at the core of her work

Lesley Rogers' decision to complete her PhD at Sussex University proved to be an excellent choice because the scholars she met in England became lifelong friends and collaborators. Together with her supervisor at Sussex she continued to co-publish throughout her career as her latest book, The Divided Brain (coauthored with Richard Andrew and another close friend and collaborator Professor Giorgio Vallortigara - see right)) testifies.

Emeritus Professor Lesley Rogers was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images provided by Lesley Rogers, Giorgio Vallortigara, Cinzia Chiandetti, A Question of Balance. Summary text by Victor Barry, March 2013.

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