Neuroscience legend

Inaugural lecture honors retiring Tufts faculty member

Prof. Suzanne Roffler-Tarlov remembers spending afternoons sitting in Bill Shucart’s office in the early 1980s. Shucart, she recalls, would rock “alarmingly” backward in his chair as the two discussed big plans for a future neuroscience department at the School of Medicine.

Dr. William Shucart

After nearly three decades as professor and chair of neurosurgery at Tufts and neurosurgeon-in-chief at Tufts-New England Medical Center, Dr. William Shucart retired from both posts on June 30.

“When I heard that he was retiring,” said Roffler-Tarlov, professor of neuroscience, “I started reflecting about what a force he’d been in the early history of our department, and I wanted to honor that.”

So on June 9, friends, colleagues and students attended the First William Shucart Neuroscience Lecture, which Roffler-Tarlov is working to ensure becomes an annual tradition.

Dr. Carl Heilman, who succeeded Shucart at Tufts and Tufts-NEMC on July 1, noted that Shucart’s commitment to training residents was legendary. “Talk to anyone who trained here,” he said in his introductory remarks on June 9, “and they’ll tell you they had the best training possible here and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

“I hope this talk,” Shucart told his audience, “will increase the number of ties between the school and the hospital. The hospital is making a big bet on neuroscience. The tighter the bonds can be, the better off everyone will be.”

John Kauer, professor of neuroscience, presented the inaugural Shucart Lecture, “Unpredictable Outcomes from Basic Research: How Neurobiology Can Inform Engineering.” In his talk, Kauer summarized the work he’s done at Tufts since Shucart recruited him from Yale in 1983. Kauer’s research on the olfactory system seeks to better understand how the brain processes information.

“I’m trying to make this point: Basic science is directly connected to real-world problems,” Kauer said. “They might seem esoteric, but these experiments actually do have an impact on the real world.”

In describing his research focus, Kauer showed slides of a dog tracking a pheasant. The dog, said Kauer, is a moving odor detector. Taking in a complex mix of chemicals, the dog differentiates pheasant molecules from the vast sea of background odors. “No artificial device can do this,” Kauer said. “There are no binoculars into the odor sea.”

Kauer is one of the scientists at Tufts working on the development of a portable chemical sensing system, known as an “artificial nose,” that could, for example, detect land mines in war-torn regions. Estimates are that there are currently 100 million land minds scattered throughout past and present war zones around the world. These unexploded mines kill or maim as many as 24,000 people per year.

Partly because humans are relatively inattentive to smell compared to the other senses, olfaction has been something of an uncharted backwater of brain science, Kauer said. The current thinking about the way the brain processes odors holds that smell receptors are “rather sloppy,” responding to a number of different odors. Different combinations of receptors code for different odors in the brain.

“If that’s true,” said Kauer, “one can see the need to understand how the individual components work, but also how the ensemble works. It illustrates the tension between the reductionist way of paring things down, then reassembling the whole business to look at the overall function in real time.”

Kauer said he was pleased to have the chance to honor Shucart’s career at Tufts. “It was a wonderful opportunity to describe how Dr. Shucart had helped with the development of basic neuroscience at Tufts and how he had contributed to my ability to carry out my own research,” Kauer wrote in an e-mail to the Tufts Journal. “Dr. Shucart had a vision of what coordinated clinical and basic neuroscience could be...and he was always a graceful, thoughtful political ally.”

Carl Heilman, Shucart’s successor, had been an associate professor of neurosurgery at the medical school and director of Tufts-NEMC’s Center for Skull Base Surgery. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Heilman completed his postgraduate training at Tufts-NEMC and the Floating Hospital for Children. His clinical specialties include skull base tumor surgery and pediatric neurosurgery.