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Honorary degree citation - Larry W. Swanson

By: Shimon Amir, June 2003

Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you a great neuroscientist, Larry W. Swanson, professor of biological sciences, psychology and neurology at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Over the course of his remarkable scientific career, Professor Swanson has played a leading role in unraveling and understanding the brain circuitry involved in behaviours arising from motivational and emotional states. More generally, he has achieved striking insights into the organizing principles that govern the overall structure of the brain. Researcher, scholar, teacher, artist, engineer, and leader, he has applied his many talents with verve and vision in the service of the brain sciences.

Born in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Larry Swanson received an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Pomona College in Claremont, California, in 1968. He pursued his studies at the graduate level in neurobiology at the Washington University School of Medicine, earning his doctorate in 1972. He continued his training and research there, as a postdoctoral fellow and research associate, in the laboratories of the preeminent neurobiologists W. Maxwell Cowan and Rita Levi-Montalcini. In 1979, he was appointed assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology. Dr. Swanson then went on to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where he rose to the rank of Senior Member. During this time, he also served as adjunct professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, and was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. In 1990, Dr. Swanson was appointed Professor of Biological Sciences, Psychology, & Neurology, at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where he was named Milo Don and Lucille Appleman Professor of Biological Sciences in 1995.

The brain is arguably the most complex object known to science. Great neuroanatomists have the gift of marshalling a vast, seemingly bewildering, store of information concerning the form, location, chemical coding and interconnection of brain cells to reveal startlingly simple principles governing the overall structure and organization of the brain. Larry Swanson exemplifies this gift, brilliantly using function as a means to make sense of intricate structure. By asking what the components of the brain do, he has helped reveal how they are built to do it.

Simple inspection of untreated brain tissue provides little clue to the richness and beauty of brain structure. To coax the brain to reveal its secrets, neuroanatomists have developed increasingly powerful methods for selectively staining brain cells and tracing their interconnections. Throughout his career, Larry Swanson has exploited new technologies to reveal orderly structure in parts of the brain that others had regarded as messy and obscure. His tract-tracing work has charted some 2000 new connections and has played a leading role in building a firm structural foundation for research on drinking, feeding, reproductive behavior, defensive behavior, sleep and wakefulness, stress, and autonomic control. His work sheds light on the organization of neurotransmitter systems and how genes controlling messenger substances in the brain are influenced by hormones.

In addition to his success at the laboratory bench, Prof. Swanson has achieved distinction as a scholar. By comparative study of the nervous systems of different animals, he has developed insights into the evolution of the brain. He has read the works of great thinkers through the ages concerning brain and behaviour, and has translated important texts previously unavailable in English. He has also studied neuroembryology and derived insights into brain organization by contemplating how the nervous system is "wired up" during development. This multifaceted historical perspective informs the wonderful book he published earlier this year: Brain architecture: Understanding the basic plan. Prof. Swanson has published some 250 scientific papers and book chapters, edited numerous books, contributed his expertise to the editorial boards of close to a dozen journals, and delivered many distinguished invited lectures internationally.

Given his remarkable ability to discern simple, powerful, principles that govern very complex systems, it is perhaps not surprising that Prof. Swanson has won several teaching awards. His artistic talents have helped him communicate his ideas broadly within the neuroscience community and beyond. His drawings of the brain and its circuitry are not only highly informative but are also strikingly beautiful.

Another area in which Prof. Swanson has made original and important contributions concerns the application of information technology to neuroscience. How can computers help us manage, organize, understand, and display the vast stores of information that are accumulating concerning the structure and function of the brain? He is a pioneer in the field of neuroinformatics and Director of the Brain Architecture Center as the University of Southern California, where methods for disseminating information about the brain via the world-wide web are being developed and implemented. He is also the author of numerous brain atlases which are used very widely in neuroscience laboratories throughout the world.

Prof. Swanson has long played a leadership role in the neuroscience community. He is a former Chair of the Neuroscience Committee at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Dean of Research in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California, where he currently directs the program in Neural, Informational, and Behavioral Sciences. This program, which melds neuroscience, cognitive science, and engineering disciplines, reflects the breadth, openness, and multifaceted nature of Dr. Swanson's scientific outlook.

In recognition of Prof. Swanson's contributions, he has received numerous awards and honours. Among these are the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award and his recognition by the Institute for Scientific Information as one of the 100 most cited neuroscience researchers in the periods 1980-1990 and 1980-2000. Recently, he was elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors, it is a privilege and an honour to present to you, Dr. Larry W. Swanson, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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