by Charlotte Wincott
When I was a graduate student at NYU not all that long ago, I was interested in the facets of behavior that led to substance use disorders. I had already lost my mother to alcohol use disorder and a friend to an opioid overdose. So many of the most interesting people I knew were struggling with addiction and as a neuroscience student, I wanted to make more sense of the hold that substances had on their lives. It seemed that there was so much overlap in the traits that made these unique and remarkable people who they were and the traits that drove them into the labyrinths of their addictions.
The professor who guided my thesis studies was open to my delving more deeply into what caused the different behaviors that had become of interest to me. At the time, I was designing my thesis project and trying to figure out not only how to answer questions, but also how to ask them. To this end, I set out to visit a world famous behavior lab at Cambridge University in the UK that summer in the hopes that learning about accomplished scientists’ methodologies and experiments would flip the switch to a few of my own light bulbs. When I got there, I was inspired by the beautiful gothic architecture of the campus and the lovely River Cam where students rowed by in the stifling heat of the summer. I remember walking past a sign on one of the buildings that advised visitors that it was in that very spot at the Downing Site that Hodgkin and Huxley had developed their famous theory of action potentials in nerve cells.
The scientists in the Department of Physiology, Development, and Neuroscience at Cambridge kindly allowed me into their laboratories and excitedly showed me all of their ingenious contraptions. I was almost shocked at how generous and unpretentious they were. They genuinely enjoyed sharing their knowledge with an awkward American graduate student, and no question I asked was met with the same