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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier...Scientist

By: Sandro Frenguelli

Automated home espresso machines are deceptively simple. Most obviously they push hot water through coffee grounds producing a drinkable liquid. However, the way in which this actually happens is nothing short of magic, or at least remarkable engineering. 

A vast array of parts and mechanisms work together in harmony to produce a perfect espresso in 25 to 30 seconds. A part breaking in such a machine could spell disaster. The fine tolerances of its components make it a challenge to disassemble and reassemble, and every moment spent without caffeine in the early morning is a moment closer to homicide. However, there is also a joy to be found in these little “wrenching” projects. Taking something apart to find out how it works is a wonderfully nerdy and satisfying endeavour. Unmasking the inner workings of a complex machine while playing detective, locating clues that point to the defective part can keep us occupied for hours. Once the part is found and hopefully fixed, the sense of accomplishment is unparalleled. Shackleton and Columbo, eat your hearts out. 

While many of us are making similar minor, albeit rewarding home fix-it journeys and discoveries, real-life scientists and explorers are working to change the course of history. Andre Fenton, Professor of Neural Science at New York University, is a leading member of this rarified group. Neuroscientists take apart the human body, specifically its nervous system, in order to understand how and why we think. This is tinkering on a truly obsessive scale, and Andre has always been a tinkerer.

During his elementary school days, Andre would often spend time after class at his friend Paul’s house. However, Paul’s parents weren’t like others in the neighbourhood. They were interested in fast cars and home mechanics. For Andre, this proved to be the perfect mix of danger and intrigue, and he would spend hours under the hood of the family’s project car. But tinkering for Andre didn’t stop at greasy wrenching. Out of necessity, it would form the basis of many personal relationships and lead to major professional discoveries. 

Born in Georgetown, Guyana, and growing up in Toronto’s Thorncliffe neighbourhood in the 1970s, Andre was always aware of the struggles of fitting in. In a world that is apologetically fueled by homogeneity, looking different and sounding different can easily make someone a social pariah. Coming from one of the northernmost countries in South America meant that Andre was not familiar with many Canadian customs and pastimes. Baseball was a novelty—its equipment and particular set of rules resemble those of cricket, the most popular sport in Guyana, but are a distinctly North American invention. Andre knew that if he wanted to fit in, he would have to reverse engineer not only the rules to many childhood games but also the way to form relationships.  

Andre spent time as a child studying the nuances of communication. He would watch how other children interacted: what they said, what they did, and how they dressed. He wanted to understand “what made Canadian kids tick.” 

Andre’s quest for answers led him to De La Salle in Grade 9 and later to Mr. Hunt’s English class. The young and impressionable Andre was instantly charmed by Mr. Hunt’s mind, stating, “Mr. Hunt turned a bunch of the things that I had thought upside down.” In class, the students were taught that the mind is important and reading is the key to understanding its mysteries. Equally as important for Andre, the books he read were not elitist success stories. Fitzgerald and Salinger wrote about those who were poor and uneducated but masters of their universes. Taking inspiration from some of literature’s most influential misfits, Andre discovered that finding meaning and success is not based on social status or fate, reflecting that, “There is a path you can take to be effective in the world.” Andre knew that his path would lead him to a life of the mind. 

Fittingly perhaps, Andre’s passions for the mind and tinkering led to success in sports. He thrived while learning the rules and mechanics of something new. He played football as a quarterback and volleyball as a setter. However, he found his home in wrestling. Beginning in Grade 9, where he wrestled much larger and older opponents, Andre discovered he needed more than just brute strength to be successful. Wrestling, like a home espresso machine, is deceptively simple. On the surface, two competitors fight to manoeuvre one another over a boundary line. Beneath the surface, a psychological chess match is played as both wrestlers lock themselves in a duel. Andre quickly developed a talent for the sport, and his coaches, wrestlers on Team Canada, taught him to fight blindfolded since “You don’t need to see. [You] just feel your opponent’s weight.” Blending the sciences of martial arts and gladiator fighting, wrestling allowed Andre to experiment with new ways of utilizing his mind. 

His mind would be tested yet again in another Del English class. Mr. Cheeley was a great dresser and an even better teacher. While reading The Great Gatsby with his class, Mr. Cheeley taught his students the merits of the finer points in life. Like Jay Gatsby, Andre understood that “You get invited [to certain parties] when you know how to dress.” In a world that easily and quickly judges based on looks, Andre learned to use fashion as an advantage, admittedly still using a handmade silk pocket square as a tacit affront to doubters.

While there were those who wished to see him fail, Andre made many friends quickly but chose his closest group carefully. The classmates that made it into Andre’s inner circle still find themselves there as Andre thinks of his Del friends as family. The group bonded over music listening to British alternative groups such as Bauhaus, Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode, and Cocteau Twins. A maverick in music choices and in many other things, Andre was chosen to be valedictorian for graduation and was in charge of planning the prom.

Andre was also a maverick when choosing universities. He knew he wanted to go to McGill because he wanted to be away from Toronto. “I wanted to be like the people I read about that went somewhere to do new things.” He began his university career as a biochemistry major but was not captivated by the material. He then tried several other disciplines to see if something would fit: English, philosophy, premed physics, chemistry, and math. After sampling what McGill had to offer, Andre rediscovered his love for the sciences in an unusual way.  

During one of his biology classes, the professor conducted an experiment titled “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain.” The experiment concluded that frogs cannot detect flies or objects that do not move. A frog’s eyesight is honed for a specific purpose—catching flies out of the air. A frog would therefore die in a room filled with dead flies. This is where philosophy met science and where Andre would get to tinker like never before. Wondering what we as humans could not see, Andre was led into the world of neurobiology. After he declared himself a biology major, Andre found his stride. He credits Del for preparing him well for tough university courses. “I didn’t have to try really hard,” Andre explains after admitting he received more than 100% in chemistry. 

After graduating from McGill, Andre moved to Prague to work with Jan Bureš at the Institute of Physiology. Bureš, a famous neuroscientist studying rats, was, according to Andre, “Like Yoda meets Einstein.” Together they worked on developing a cognitive map for rats, and Andre developed a special rotating maze for the process used industry-wide. This device measured “how rats process spatial information to form, maintain and judiciously use memories” (ibiology.org).

Wanting to further tinker with and study the cognitive map of cells that were being discussed in Prague, Andre moved to the United States. Andre completed his Ph.D. at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in New York, and at NYU’s Center for Neuroscience, he found one of the only places in the world where the measurement and recording of memory cells were possible. With access to new equipment, Andre began researching representations of space in the brain and how memories are stored.

As he had done in high school, Andre was again thinking very carefully about human behaviour. He and his team worked to see if a specific protein could be connected to memory. In order to do this, the team conducted tests on rats manoeuvering through Andre’s maze that he had developed in Prague. In 2006, Andre and his team discovered a connection between memory and protein kinase M zeta. This discovery was selected by Science Magazine as one of its Breakthroughs of the Year.

Surprisingly, there was no “lightbulb” at the moment of discovery for Andre. “You don’t get excited because [the experiment] might not be able to be reproduced.” The anticlimactic nature of science is that after multiple successful reproductions, the scientists are already convinced that their hypothesis is correct by the time they are confident in their results. “The celebration does not matter.” Scientists are not only brilliant, but they are humble too.  

However, the humility could be in part due to self-preservation. Once one scientist discovers something, other scientists work to disprove it. In order to cope with the pressure, Andre looks back to his time as a high school wrestler believing a good offence is a good defence. “You need to be critical of yourself before others can be. You need to know where they are going to hit.”

Andre’s defence of his discovery has stood strong, and he has gone on to numerous other successes. He co-hosts the NOVA television programme Wonders and heads his own lab at NYU, Fenton Lab, dedicated to studying how the brain processes and stores memories. In 2019, Andre was awarded the Canadian American Heritage Award for Excellence in Science and Technology, and in 2020, Cell Press called him one of the Top 100 Black Scientists in America.

Still a tinkerer at heart, Andre co-founded Bio-Signal Group, “a medtech company that develops and sells miniaturized electroencephalography (EEG) machines and easy-to-use electrodes to assess brain function” (ibiology.org). Among many other things, he is currently working with a team of doctors and scientists to deliver life-saving ventilators to Indian hospitals inundated with Covid patients. He is also working with a German team to develop a passport system for prescription medicine. 

The future for Andre will involve more dissection of thought. “We have an idea of what memory is, but we are [still] trying to figure it out.” Andre and his team are working on studying memory subjectively rather than objectively. Because two people can view the same thing (objectively), but experience vastly different things (subjectively), “[the brain] is a model of experience [and does not] reflect experience.” Not even Andre knows where this will lead. However, one thing is certain: more tinkering is needed.

  • Summer 2021