Boundless curiosity and an abiding love for teaching and learning define lives well lived and a capstone achievement–Neurons in Action
There the Dean of Students, Mark Sentelle, a Biblical scholar, greeted them with these words: “I am your dean. The dean has two tasks. The first is to help students out when they are in trouble. The second task is like unto the first: to help students out when they are in trouble.”
It is a lesson Moore has lived. His career-long love for students and teachers in all their guises, coupled with his own inexhaustible scientific curiosity, has led him through an extraordinary academic life’s journey of his own, right down the middle of the American Century—and at a quickening pace into the 21st. It is a life he recently summed up eloquently in a chapter of The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography (2011, Oxford University Press).
During a June visit at his Chapel Hill home, Moore, a Duke professor emeritus of neurobiology, was quick to credit the lively readability of his chapter in the Oxford tome to the strong scientific and editorial eye of his wife and professional colleague, Ann Stuart, a UNC Chapel Hill professor emerita of cell biology and physiology.
The pair’s collaboration, begun in the 1970s, has had far-reaching consequences. One of the first was Jonathan Stuart-Moore, born in 1983. He and Ann Stuart both would come to figure prominently in Moore’s ongoing career capstone achievement, Neurons in Action.
Neurons in Action is a computer-based teaching tool that allows students to learn how neuronal impulses are generated and how they travel. It is today a gold standard for neuroscience instruction around the world—a world that Moore first stepped into as a young academic at a time the world could scarcely imagine such a thing.
Mid-Century Scientific Heyday
Military service in World War II after graduation was not an option for John Moore due to a club foot. He signed on instead for graduate work in physics.
On the morning of Dec. 8, 1941, Moore arrived to find his physics lab at the University of Virginia surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. The nation was at war. From that day until war’s end, his assigned projects ranged from developing an automated direction system for shipboard anti-aircraft guns, using a new technology called “radar” (RAdio Detection And Ranging) to the research and development of an ultra-centrifuge, a project that was ultimately passed over in favor of a diffusion method as a basis for separating uranium isotopes as part of the Manhattan Project.
After the war came a seminal year for Moore at RCA Laboratories, under the tutelage of legendary master engineer and inventor Art Vance. Among Vance’s many emerging claims to American postwar research and development, he was an expert in analog computers. He essentially invented negative feedback and the operational amplifier system that would permit precise mathematical operations by machine, as well as the voltage regulation systems peculiar to a new device known as an electron microscope.
“Vance helped me rearrange my mindset so that I would think in terms of currents, which then allowed me to understand how op-amps could be used in biophysics and was crucial to my future work,” Moore writes in his autobiography chapter.
Subsequent chapter sub-headings telescope his story succinctly across the decades from “The Momentous Encounter with Kacy Cole” to “My First Computer.”
One chapter sub-head stands out as a harbinger of Neurons in Action: “1968-1975: Modeling Action Potential Propagation.” In the parlance of electrophysiology—the term “neuroscience” had not yet been coined—“action potential” is a nerve signal measured in millivolts. To model the propagation of a nerve impulse required solving a set of complex equations of many variables, which could only be done by a computer.
“In the 1970s, some very, very good students wanted to work with me because I had a computer!” Moore recalls.
Neurons in Action
Moore and Stuart began dating in the 70s, at first at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Massachussets, then with semester sabbaticals up and down the Eastern seaboard, and summer sailing at Woods Hole drawing them even closer. Moore had bought a residential lot in 1955 at the scientific enclave for $800, and summers at the cottage he built there remain a seasonal highlight.
The couple’s home in Chapel Hill, complete with great blue heron across a placid lake and detachable floating picnic dock with tiny motor, is filled with memorabilia of their careers and life together. Visitors, accompanied by Taffy the well-behaved shelter dog, get a gracious tour of a central hallway bedecked with framed pictures and clippings of every sort and vintage. Entire walls of the home are devoted to the media at the moments of two scientific and musical lifetimes, from vinyl albums and cassettes to videotapes, CDs and DVDs. Computers perch in many a corner, framed here by a glittering collection of Waterford in a windowsill or there by a grand piano and Stuart’s cello, trumpet, even a set of musical glasses on which she and son Jonathan have performed at Duke Chapel. Here and there are tubs of individually-wrapped butter mints, because Ann loves them and so John refuses that their home should be without them.
Moore and Stuart pull round their living room sofas, and sync one of the computers to the big screen for a layman’s demo of Neurons in Action 2.
Moore got the idea for a simulation-based teaching tool long before any such instruments were available. The Internet was still relatively new. In 1993, Mike Hines, developer of the NEURON simulator, introduced Moore to a new phenomenon, an Internet “browser” known as MOSAIC. Moore immediately had the then-novel idea of linking text with actual laboratory simulations.
Several years later Stuart joined the effort, as did their teenage computer-savvy son. In 2000, Sinauer and Associates published Neurons in Action.
In 2003, Stuart met with Davidson’s R. Stuart Dickson Professor of Psychology Julio Ramirez to get pointers on how to write a National Science Foundation grant. Their efforts paid off with a grant for Version 2, published in 2007. Version 2.03 includes 28 tutorials, including modules on ion channel kinetics, toxins and membrane excitability. Fully adjustable variables open the way for today’s students to explore any thought that crosses their own neurons.
“When Ann Stuart and John Moore introduced Neurons in Action, there was little in the field of neuroscience education that came anywhere close to the excellence of that software education package,” says Ramirez. “Version 2.0+ continues to be an extraordinary educational tool that introduces students to the fundamentals of neurophysiology on an intuitive platform, and deeply engages them in scientific inquiry in a simulation environment. I was honored to have had an opportunity to chat with Ann and John (both giants in neuroscience research) when they were contemplating its newest iteration with version 2.”
Moore reflects on his long and happy path, from simply noticing as a Davidson undergraduate that his math and physics professors seemed to be enjoying themselves, to bringing that same spirited sense of fun and free inquiry full circle to today’s students.
“I can tell more about what a student knows by his or her questions than by the answers to questions I ask,” Moore says. “I tell them, ‘Ask “what if” questions based on your understanding, and then run the simulation to see if you are correct.’ That is how Neurons in Action leads to the ‘Aha!’ moment.”