Tag Archives: sex differences

When I’m Sixty Five

Special dedication to

Jacques Balthazart!

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birthday greetings

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Pictured, a Valentine, a birthday greeting, a bottle of wine, and a Jupiler

Jacques Balthazart is a true leader in behavioral neuroendocrinology, the study of how hormones affect the brain and behavior. His retirement demanded a fitting tribute, but there was a problem. When it comes to international conference organizers, nobody does it better than Jacquesyoung jacques Balthazart. So, who would throw this party? No worries. The Belgian government’s policy requiring mandatory retirement at age 65 turned out to be the catalyst for a nonpareil scientific meeting (throughout this blog, all words underlined are links). It also turned out to be an outrageous birthday party and a creative plan to continue research on his own terms. Last week, the combination of foundational research, cutting-edge science, Belgian beer, and collegiality led to the conference’s new nom de plume: The International Conference Honoring Brilliant Balthazart (ICHBB).

Jacques is shown above and to the right just moments before the party, and below, just a few days into the party.

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Photo by GianCarlo Panzica of Jacques Balthazart, 65,  in a gift hat symbolizing his dual loyalty to Belgium and the U.S.
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ICHBB Conference photos by GianCarlos Panzika

After all, when you are the premier conference organizer, entertainer, and hub of your scientific community, it makes sense that you should plan, host, and orchestrate your own birthday retirement party!

team jacques

“Team Jacques” adapted from a funny photo by Julie Bakker

The first ICHBB was named the International Conference on Hormones Brain and Behavior and held in Bielfeld, Germany in 1982. It was conceived and developed from Jacques’ isolation as one of the few behavioral endocrinologists in Belgium. His uncontrollable desire for scientific interaction led him to invite about 40 premier behavioral endocrinologists from around the world to Bielfeld. To his surprise, they all showed up; it was an unqualified success; and everyone wanted to do it again and again. And again. In subsequent years, Jacques personally nursed the ICHBB in his home town of Liege (in 1984, 1989, and 2014) and affectionately nurtured the conference when it was hosted by others in France, Italy, and Spain.

liege buttfly bushes  2 I learned some things about Jacques’ life that I hope will be shared, remembered, and handed down to our academic offspring! First, necessity is the mother of invention in that some of Jacques’ biggest contributions to science come from his ability to embrace his authentic small-town lifestyle while uniting the world of behavioral neuroendocrinology. He was born, raised, educated, bred, and “retired” in Liege, Belgium, far less a tourist destination than a very pleasant place to grow up, and Jacques truly loves Liege. Many Americans have never even heard of Belgium, let alone, Liege, but one thing is very clear. Liege is “on the map” in the minds of behavioral endocrinologists. This just shows that there is no point in whining about where you work. I know behavioral endocrinologists at big U.S. medical schools, at Yale, or in big universities like UC-Berkeley who feel more isolated than Jacques.

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Scenes from Liege

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This idea was confirmed by plenary speaker, Kathy Olsen, former deputy director of the National Science Foundation, chief scientist for NASA, and associate director and deputy director of science in the executive offices of the President of the United States of America. According to Kathy, there is no one else to blame for putting Liege on the map other than Jacques Balthazart.

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Kathy Olsen (right) shown with Vicki Luine and Yasuo Sakuma (left)

In terms of hormones and behavior, Jacques brought the world to Liege. I was surprised to learn that the man we know as the hub of our global science community is very much a local family man. Jacques’ father was a local architect, and his mother worked as a full-time homemaker and mother of two children. Jacques was educated from primary school on up through college in his home town of Liege. It was at the University of Liege that he fell in love with one of his biology professors, the beautiful and enviably fit, Claire (apparently she still runs 10K a day!). In addition to having a successful career in biology, Claire is a super friendly, social, community-oriented woman-about-town. Jacques, on the other hand, is not nearly as involved with his local friends and relatives. Though Claire chides Jacques for not remembering neighbors who have known Jacques his whole life, Jacques, ironically, is the social glue holding together a giant global network of scholars and friends, many of whom traveled far and wide to celebrate Jacques’ birthday. In one of Jacques’ presentations this week, he showed a world map dotted in every continent with markers showing where he has friends who will meet him at the airport.

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Lauren Riters and family (left) and Nicole Cameron with a lot of French stripes (right)

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Nicole, Lauren, Lauren’s son, Nancy Forger and Geert DeVries (left) and cannibals on the menu (below)

A Bad Bromance

Everyone in behavioral endocrinology knows that Jacques Balthazart has co-authored numerous landmark articles with Greg Ball, begging the question “How did this fertile collaboration begin?” During the various tributes at the conference, we learned that in 1983, Greg Ball was a graduate student at the Institute for Animal Behavior at Rutgers-Newark, where Jacques Balthazart was a distinguished visitor. Jacques, however, was not impressed with that Greg Ball character!

Jacques recalls Greg as a “lazy, long-haired hippie hanging around drinking coffee and pontificating in the break room all day long in a booming voice that could be heard all over the department.” As they say, first impressions are the best. Well, except the lazy part, because Greg’s and Jacques’ publications together number at least 400, and somewhere between 110-115 of those articles are co-authored by Ball and Balthazart or Balthazart and Ball.

The Ball and Balthazart Bromance was finally consummated (scientifically) a few years later in Germany. Greg Ball, then a postdoc with John Wingfield, was invited to speak at the conference. Greg was put up in a small dormatory-like room with a single bathroom shared by the adjacent room. Greg was brushing his teeth when his new next door neighbor, Jacques Balthazart, burst into the bathroom. “Well, well, well, we meet again!” Only this time, the Greg-Jacques Belgian beer bromance began in earnest (Wait? Who’s Ernest?) From the time of that meeting, Jacques Balthazart and Greg Ball became fast friends and insanely productive collaborators.

Incidentally, you can trace the academic family trees of these characters and that of your own mentor at Neurotree.org. Greg Ball’s tree is probably the most interesting, reaching straight back to Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Peg McCarthy, Greg Ball’s beloved spousal unit, in her plenary lecture, explained that Jacques was a daunting obstacle blocking Greg’s affections for Peg in the initial stages of their courtship. At first, it was clear to Peg that Jacques would always be Greg’s “first wife.” It seemed she could never compete with Jacques. Luckily, Jacques came to adore Peg, and now warmly accepts Peg as a sisterwife. Suffice to say, that if all sisterwives were like Jacques and Peg, we would all be Mormons.

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Greg Ball and Peg McCarthy (left) and a nicer pic of Peg with me and Colin Saldanha

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   Celebrating Belgium Moving Up In the World Cup 2014

To Sir Jacques With Love

The entire meeting was infused with enormous gratitude and affection from Jacques’ present and former students, postdocs, collaborators, family, and friends. Greg Ball gave a “What I learned from Jacques” speech that I wish all graduate students could hear. The highlights included

1) PUBLISH all of your data immediately. You never know when or how your results will be useful to other scientists, and none of it will matter if it is not published.

2) Time is precious, so, collect data, and write without fail, regardless of how late you stayed up the night before. No excuses. As Jacques would say, you have one 33 cl (Jupiler) at lunch and then bike back to work!

3) Be brave about methods. If it’s been done, you can do it.

4) Good ideas come from many sources, so, go to meetings and host your own.

5) Good colleagues can be good friends.

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Jacques and Jeff Blaustein are not at all faking interest in my poster presentation. Photo taken by Vicki Luine.

In any case, there were so many excellent talks and posters at the meeting, demonstrating that Jacques will live on through his scholarship and mentoring as long as human civilization survives. Happily we learned that Jacques will continue working at the University of Liege, without the unpleasant duties of his old position, but instead intensifying focus on the research that he loves. This is one of the benefits of launching the careers of young, outstanding scientists and scholars. Shown below are ICHBB attendees who came to honor Jacques: Dave Grattan, Colin Saldanha, Kiran Soma, Jim Pfaus (with son, Josh), Thierry Charlier, Chuck Roselli and many others in the group photos.

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Enjoy the next phase, Jacques! Your work is alive and well in all of our research programs. See you soon.

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The above photo of Jacques and the preceding six were taken by GianCarlo Panzica.

There will be more pictures available through the website for the ICHBB. Meanwhile, you will find some links to seminal Balthazart discoveries here and here.

And finally, here’s a funky version of what I’m sure Jacques’ mentees are thinking…

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Taint That Peculiar

English: House mouse, 4 days old.

English: House mouse, 4 days old. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mind blown. I just discovered that data I collected one afternoon during my junior year of college is important and useful, now. I was sitting at the banquet of the annual SBN conference, when former president of the society, Art Arnold, said “Hey, that paper you published 30 some years ago has been so useful in getting researchers to start paying attention to sex differences.” At first I was confused. Was he talking about that old review article I co-authored with my postdoctoral mentor (which keeps getting cited even though we’ve both written much better reviews)? Or maybe he meant the overrated article we published in Science in 1989? No, it turned out he was excited about a paper that emerged from a side project loosely related to my FSU undergraduate honors thesis in which I measured the length of mouse taints

It all started when some grad students and a postdoc decided they wanted to give the googly-eyed, work-study student (me) a “discovery experience.” This, by the way, is the essence of mentoring, and I am forever grateful to those guys. They gave me 50 or so one-day-old mouse pups and said “Figure out which ones are male and which are female; collect some data; and show us how to document the sex difference.” I sat alone in the room, like the miller’s daughter in Rumplestiltskin, staring hopelessly at the seemingly identical embryonic bodies (see pic). I focused on the place where you might expect to see a tiny penis, but where I hoped to see a penis, there was only a small bump and a small hole behind the bump. Each and every mouse had the same bump-and-hole arrangement. Finally, after more staring, I noticed that the bump-to-hole distance was small in some mice and large in others. The hoity toity science name for this is the “anogenital distance.” To the likes of me, the term for this distance is the taint, because it tain’t the genital and it tain’t the other thing. So, I divided the pups into two piles, a short-taint pile and long-taint pile. Now how was the miller’s daughter going to spin mouse taint into scientific gold? My Rumplestiltskin was a professor who studied the visual system, the late Howard Baker. I told him I was trying to measure a very tiny distance that I could barely see with my naked eye. He gave me a reticle, a glass eyepiece for a microscope with a ruler engraved on the lens, which allows measurements accurate to 0.01 mm. I measured all the little mouse taints, and found the mean for each group. I did a t-test, and the difference was highly significant. I guessed that the those mice with the smaller taints were the females. Correct! Chuck and John, the grad students and postdoc in the lab already knew the answer, but since I discovered it without any help, they encouraged me to publish a paper. Hence the 1978 publication in Behavioral Research Methods and Instrumentation, “Determining the sex of neonatal mice, Mus musculus.

Howard Baker never demanded my first-born son, few colleagues since have been so generous regarding authorship, and I rarely think of this one-page publication in a minor journal. Half the time I don’t even list it on my c.v. I just assumed in 1978 that everyone knew the importance of knowing the sex of your experimental animals on the day of birth. Tragically, the majority of scientists stubbornly refuse to look at both sexes in their experiments. The fact is, males and females differ in response to pain, drugs, hormones, and their propensity for many different diseases. Sex hormones have profound effects during early development, both pre- and neonatally, and these hormones masculinize or feminize the individual, determining their adult response to drugs, cancer, infections, pain, diet and exercise. We now have a large body of data on common diseases and biological processes; most of it on males by a ratio of 5:1. In 1993, the importance of sex differences and of early hormonal effects prompted the NIH to mandate the enrollment of women in human clinical trials. This mandate should also apply to the animal research on which the human research is based. Excuses for the male-only bias include “females are too variable due to their estrous cycles,” and even more ridiculous, “I don’t know how to tell the difference between the sexes.” It taint rocket science; even a work-study student at a state school could figure it out.

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