Colorado suspect’s field of study was rarefied, rigorousJames Holmes inhabited an academic world so wondrous, it could unlock the chemical code to human behavior, so complex that few outside the nation’s brilliant cloister of neuroscientists could begin to comprehend it.
By: Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
AURORA, Colo. — James Holmes inhabited an academic world so wondrous, it could unlock the chemical code to human behavior, so complex that few outside the nation’s brilliant cloister of neuroscientists could begin to comprehend it.
The graduate neuroscience program at the University of Colorado-Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus ranks among the top third of graduate programs in neuroscience — the study of the brain, its 100 billion nerve cells, and the connections among those cells that control thought and action.
“If I go to a bar and somebody asks me what I do, all I say is research,” said David Cantu, who got his doctorate from the program. “If I’d tell people I was specializing in mitochondrial reactive oxygen species and how it pertains to cell deaths ... people’s eyes would start to glaze over.”
It’s the same program that Holmes, suspected of killing 12 patrons and injuring 58 at a movie theater July 20, recently dropped after his first year.
Interviews with top directors of the university’s graduate program, and others outside the school, provide a glimpse into the lives of those who choose such a rigorous course of study. The Colorado program has been largely shuttered to public view since Holmes’ arrest July 20, a month after he announced plans to abandon his graduate studies there.
The interviews on that campus were conducted on the basis that Holmes not be discussed, but what emerges is a vivid portrait of the intense world in which the
24-year-old student lived over the past year.
In this rarefied and often high-pressure environment, students who are already near the best of their game are asked to exponentially expand their capabilities, frequently under stiff competition, and often in isolation.
The $126 million-a-year neuroscience program, which includes a new Center for NeuroScience, in recent years has developed the basis for drugs for the treatment of Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease and discovered that eating disorders such as bulimia can trigger alterations in the brain’s reward circuits. It has also revealed that the brains of mice can be profoundly affected by the kind of cages in which they’re kept, raising questions about some of the most fundamental experiments in biological science.
Housed in gleaming new research buildings on the Aurora campus, the program is one of dozens that have multiplied across the country over the past
20 years as researchers have begun to develop the modern tools needed to scrutinize and measure the inner workings of the brain.
“A lot of the effort prior to 1970 was just trying to define, to map the nervous system. ... But once a lot of that was defined, it required all these other disciplines to come into the community of neuroscience to take the next step,” said Barry Shur, dean of the University of Colorado-
Denver’s graduate school.
Just 35 students are enrolled in the doctoral training segment, an intense, five- to six-year journey through the dense frontiers of neuroanatomy, cell biology, genetics and pharmacology. First-year students are plunged into fundamental course work accompanied by a trio of lab rotations designed to help them select an area of research.
“The transition from the student to the researcher is the whole goal,” said Diego Restrepo, co-director of the neuroscience center. “The student has to demonstrate the independence, the curiosity, the creativity to ask questions that can be translated into an experiment that will produce data that will ... give you an answer to your question.”
Students are closely monitored but, at Denver and at most top schools, quickly begin to take ownership of their own progress. “We’re taking really, really smart students who have a pretty good idea of what they want to do and making sure they have the tools to start out, and then we set them loose,” said John Ngai, director of the graduate program in neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley.
The pace rapidly becomes robust and the competition severe, as students jockey for the best-funded labs, aim to have their work published in scientific journals and spend long, sometimes exhausting hours in the lab endlessly repeating and redesigning experiments.
“I think my first student got away with a 40-hour week, though most students spend significantly more than that, probably 50 or 60. And some of them much more,” said Louis F. Reichardt, neuroscience program director at UC San Francisco.
“There are experiments where you have to have data points every half hour, and when that happens, you put a cot in the lab and you check it all through the night — I’ve done that,” Shur said. “What we expect is the students to be self-
motivated, passionate, and not have to be told to go into the laboratory.”
The work can be isolating drudgery. Graduate students’ lab hours are often spent alone in tiny, sterile rooms — rats and mice their only companions — before the students go home to study. Some students spend years breeding rodents to develop needed models to study memory conditions; others take days to recover information using electrophysiology from the brain of a single rat after an experiment.
“There’s a lot of time when you’re just alone, (and) it’s very easy to get lost in those periods of isolation,” said Shawn E. Nielsen, a fourth-year doctoral student at UC Irvine whose interest in neuroscience began when her then-13-year-old sister began suffering epileptic seizures and memory loss.
Holmes, who had graduated with honors as a neuroscience student at UC Riverside in 2010, appeared to be interested in the physiological and genetic underpinnings of mental illness. At a science camp at Miramar College when he was 18, Holmes made a presentation on “temporal illusions,” the inaccurate perceptions of reality that can occur due to lags in neural processing.
University of Colorado-Denver officials have declined to discuss Holmes’ record but said that fewer than 10 percent of doctoral students drop out of the program during their first year. His announcement in June followed the rigorous oral examination that concludes the first year of course work and lab rotations, but Angie Ribera, director of the graduate program in neuroscience, said students are almost never “flunked” because of shortcomings on that exam.
“I want to make it perfectly clear that the exam is not something we’re looking to as a screen,” she said. “If there are deficiencies, we recognize them right away and can take steps to address them.”