Dave Sulzer has such an amazing scientific breakthrough that he has to lie down.

Elephant Music

Dave Sulzer teaches elephants to play music and gives new meaning to the term "big band."

30 Second Science with David Sulzer

We give Dave Sulzer 30 seconds to describe his science and then we go inside his brain.

10 Questions for David Sulzer

We ask Dave Sulzer 10 questions and he tells us about "Dumbo Drop."

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The origin of a neuroscientist

One thing that stood out for us during our interview with Dave Sulzer is when he told us he got bad grades for most of his time in high school. This, of course, seemed bizarre and shocking to us. How could this possibly have been? For crying out loud, the man is a NEUROSCIENTIST!

But it was true. And it’s true for lots of folks. We recently had a struggling high school student write in to ask Dave how he managed to turn things around in school. And Dave’s answer was so great that we wanted to highlight it here in its own post:

“Please don’t use me as an inspiration, I’m awful! I got into college because Michigan State, my alma mater, told me they would accept me if I got straight As on my last semester. So then I studied hard at that point, and they kept their word. I’m not sure they do that kind of thing anymore.

“Then I started to work harder in college when I decided I was interested in science and would like to go to graduate school, and you do need outstanding grades for that, and often some experience. Also, I saw some of my friends were getting very good grades, and I became a bit jealous and wanted to show that I could do it too, if I wanted to!

“Finally, my advice in college is that if you are interested in science is to volunteer to work in a science lab. Often if you do a good job and are energetic, careful, and patient it can turn into a real job and help you enter into that line of work. I worked in a Chinese cabbage breeding lab, which I admit sounds pretty odd in retrospect, but I learned about genetics and something about crop farming. It did help my introduction to botany and plant breeding, which was sort of my foundation in scientific work.”

Soldier of song

Dave Sulzer was a musician long before he was a neuroscientist. And he’s been in a succession of great bands and worked with high-profile musicians like Bo Diddley, David Byrne, and John Cale (not to mention a certain group of five-ton musicians from Thailand).

In fact, Dave made a living as a musician during college and grad school. And being a scientist-by-day, musician-by-night was never a problem for him until he got an invitation to tour overseas:

“All my traveling and performing had been in the States. And I got an invitation in my first year of grad school to do a small tour of Britain. And I went to the department chair and I said, ‘Is it okay if I go to Britain? This is really an amazing opportunity for me and I’d love to do it.’ And he said, ‘Okay, you can do this. But you have to come back and not play music anymore. You have to single-mindedly devote yourself to scientific research.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’

“When I got back to the States [after the tour], I knew the department chair didn’t want me to play music. So I just started spelling my name differently for music. My real name is Dave Sulzer and sometimes people would hear it and think I was saying ‘Dave Soldier.’ In fact, one of the bandleaders I worked with called me that for about a year before he realized ‘Soldier’ wasn’t my last name. And even I didn’t realize he was saying that. So, I started using the name, ‘Dave Soldier,’ when I played music. And I kind of fibbed to the department chair. And other people figured out that I was still playing music at night sometimes, but it was a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ kind of situation.”

So in the grand tradition of other pseudonymed artists such as Mark Twain, Pee-Wee Herman, and Crazy Eyes Killa, Dave continued (and continues) to have a successful musical career as Dave Soldier. And he has no regrets at all about his ongoing not-so-secret life:

“I remember very clearly that I felt if I didn’t write music and play, I’d go crazy. You know, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. And I think it’s that way for a lot of musicians. You don’t necessarily even want to do it. But you do it because you love it so much that you can’t not do it. You can’t stop yourself.”

And the whole music thing doesn’t seem to have held back his science career at all. Soldier on, Dave.

Ask Dave your questions

Q: Do elephant's brains experience the same problems humans do? Like strokes, seizures and are they able to multi-task or have a subconscious?

DZ (Dave Sulzer): A new research article, conducted with some of the same elephants in the orchestra, shows that they will cooperate on tasks – no surprise to people who are around elephants, but demonstrated very nicely.

See: “From the Cover: Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task” Plotnik JM, Lair R, Suphachoksahakun W, de Waal FB. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Mar 22;108(12):5116-21. This paper should be downloadable from the PNAS website.

Tell me if this applies to the “multi-task” question: certainly they perform multiple tasks simultaneously, for instance foraging while being involved in social interactions. In regards to brain disorders, I need to find out. I heard of strokes in old elephants, but no first-hand knowledge. I think it is probable. Elephants are subject to many diseases, including rabies, tetanus, tuberculosis, pneumonia, poisoning from drugs like amphetamine, and most of these have neurological symptoms and some like rabies specifically attack the nervous system. I understand that there is a particularly horrible herpes virus that is very worrying.

And a piece of homework for you: define subconscious in a way that lends itself to observation so that we can answer the question. You may know the “zombie problem”, in which it is very difficult to prove that all other humans except yourself are not robots and have consciousness. A related question is if they have “REM” sleep, and they are said to twitch and so on during sleep. So my guess is that they likely dream.

Q: This question is not about elephants, it is about nerves. How long is the longest axion? Do they all come in one size?

DZ: For a single unbranched axon, it would presumably be one from the cortex that travels all the way to the end of the spinal column of the elephant, so perhaps about 12 feet: and then the motor neuron from the neuron it innervates in the spinal cord would go to the bottom of the foot or tip of the tail, so I would guess perhaps 10 feet. This is if the axons were straight, but they aren’t. Moreover, there are sensory neurons running the other direction, so those would presumably also be the longest for unbroken stretches.

However, for the entire length of an axon, including it’s bifurcations, to my knowledge the longest would be the dopamine neurons, as even in a mouse a single neuron can have an axon that has half a meter of length: see the article Matsuda et al in the Journal of Neuroscience last year. This because the axon is incredibly complicated with many branch points, which then have more branch points. We are trying to work on the molecular mechanism of how this occurs, see Schmitz et al 2009 also in J Neuroscience.

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