Professor Lesley Rogers, neurobiologist

Professor Lesley RogersLesley Rogers was born in Brisbane in 1943. She received a BSc (Hons) from Adelaide University in 1964, where she investigated the physiology of long-necked tortoises. From 1965 to 1966 she was a teaching fellow at Harvard University and from 1967 to 1968 she was a research assistant in the Gastroenterology Department of the New England Medical Center Hospital in Boston. In 1971 Rogers received a DPhil from Sussex University in the UK.

Rogers returned to Australia in 1972 when she was appointed as a senior tutor in the Physiology Department at Monash University. From 1976 to 1977 she was a senior research fellow at the Australian National University. From 1978 to 1985 she was in the Pharmacology Department at Monash University, appointed initially as a senior tutor, then ARC research fellow and finally as a lecturer. Rogers joined the Physiology Department of the University of New England in 1985 as a lecturer. She received a DSc from Sussex University in 1987 for her thesis entitled Neuroethological Studies of Brain Development and Behaviour. In 1987 she was appointed senior lecturer and in 1989 was appointed associate professor. She was appointed to a personal chair in 1993 and is now Professor of Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour. In 1997 she received the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research. Her particular research interests include the structural and functional lateralisation in the brain and the effects of early experience and hormones on brain development.

Interviewed by Professor John Bradshaw in 2001.


Childhood steps toward science

I wonder, Lesley, whether something in your early days set the stage for your interest in science.

I wouldn't say my earliest memories had much to do with science. The first thing I remember, from when I was a babe in arms, is seeing a huge crack in our terrazzo verandah looming up at me as my brother accidentally dropped me. And I remember being in a pram on the front lawn of our house in Adelaide, with a gum tree moving against the sky.

My mother's sister was a science teacher, and also my immediate family had some interest in science which I suppose must have had an impact on me. My brother, who was eight years older than me, was particularly fascinated by ants and how their colonies organised themselves, and I used to share some of that interest as well as my family's love for animals in general. We spent a lot of time every holidays camping in the bush, and we would often spend several days down at the mouth of the River Murray, where my father owned an old boat. We would go past the mouth of the river from Goolwa down into the Coorong, which at that time could only be reached by boat. I used to roam the sandhills there and observe nature.

I think your love for animals made you interested in going into zoo keeping.

When I was very young it was my aim to become a zoo keeper, but not in any academic way. I used to organise little zoo displays, getting together all the children in the neighbourhood and lining up their pets along the front footpath for various adults to look at as they passed. Actually, in retrospect that was not a very great career to have aspired to – I'm now quite opposed to zoos except for certain species.

Did you study much science at high school?

Well, if you were interested in going to university it was two maths, two languages – I took French and Latin – English, physics and chemistry. I loved physics, it was my favourite subject. But I read beyond the school curriculum, which wasn't terribly entertaining. I wanted to do biology as well, but that wasn't open to girls unless they were seen to be not university material.

Those years at Norwood Girls High School were an interesting time, because the girls and the boys were kept separate. There was a white line painted down the middle of the school, and the girls had to stay on one side and the boys on the other. In fact, if you were caught putting your toe over the white line during school hours you got quite severe punishment. In the final year (called Leaving Honours) there were so few students that boys and girls were put together, but until then physics was taught separately for girls and boys. We had excellent teachers, however, and in retrospect I think we were rather special. The selective school was actually Adelaide High, but Norwood High was extremely good.

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Choosing a career interest: the path to biochemistry and zoology

Did you have some idea at the back of your mind that at university you'd eventually switch to the biological sciences if possible, and perhaps go into veterinary science?

I would have done vet if it had been open to me, but in Adelaide there was and still is no veterinary school, so it would have meant going to Melbourne or to Sydney – which in those days wasn't the sort of thing that was ever considered for a girl, particularly from my background. Also, I needed to have a scholarship, and when you applied for the scholarship it was always to the university in your home town.

So I went to Adelaide University, set to become a physicist. I took what they called Physics I, which was the one leading on to further study. There were about 180 students in the class, of which two of us were girls. It was a frightful experience, because I was the only young woman in my tutorial group and the lecturer always asked me to solve the problems, do the theorems on the board and so on. Years later I discovered that the lecturer asked me because he knew I could do them, but in those days I was terribly nervous and thought it was just to show me up. He used to laugh and then the boys in the class would laugh, and I was totally demoralised. (The other girl student and I were not a support to each other, which was also typical of a time when women were not well accepted.)

About halfway through the year I decided, 'If this is what physics is, it is not a career for me,' and I actually dropped back to do general physics – a terrible thing to decide, because in the entrance exam I had come fourth in the state in physics and the general physics was really just a catch-up course for people who couldn't do physics. But by then I'd met encouraging people in zoology, which tied in with my love of animals, and I took up biochemistry and did my honours in zoology.

For my honours I worked on the long-necked tortoise. These tortoises migrate over quite long distances in dry conditions, and the question was how they maintained their water levels. I discovered that their urine just concentrates in the bladder and the water gets resorbed into the body. Later it was shown that many frogs – and some mammals – do the same. My findings were published, I might add.

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Political by-ways on the road to a PhD

After honours you began a PhD, didn't you?

Yes. First of all I was accepted to do a PhD in Adelaide, at Waite Agricultural Research Institute. That was looking at metamorphosis in tadpoles and changes in enzyme levels and so on, but it didn't work out terribly well and I got the idea it would be better to go overseas. In those days you weren't respected as a scholar in Australia unless you'd either come from overseas or been to Britain or America.

I was awarded the George Murray Scholarship from Adelaide University, and took it to Harvard University. The problem was that although the money might have been sufficient to support you through living in the UK, you couldn't have lived on it at Harvard, and also the fees there were very high. So I had to take up a teaching fellowship as well, which meant teaching 20 hours a week plus doing a full-time course. That is how I made a second start – not really wanting to have to – at a PhD.

I didn't finish my PhD at Harvard, however. By then it was the mid-'60s, and even before I left Adelaide I had been an active member of the anti-nuclear campaign and had moved on into the early anti Vietnam war movement. When I got to the United States I was on some of the first demonstrations in Boston, in Harvard Square, where there'd be about 60 of us marching. (Of course later it got to be thousands and thousands.) If you were heard to have a foreign accent, you were given 24 hours to leave the country, but I survived by carrying placards and being careful not to speak.

But then I also worked to get the vote against the war through the city council in Cambridge, which was the first place in America that actually voted as a people against the war, and my involvement in those political activities clashed with my studies at Harvard. Foreign students were not supposed to be involved in all these things, and in fact I was told to leave Harvard. I was pretty devastated, because I had been brought up in a family who were, on my mother's side, very strongly left-wing and very outspoken about their political views, and I'd just been continuing what I was used to.

Your PhD supervisor was a well-known person. Didn't he support you?

My supervisor was George Wald, who shared the Nobel Prize for vision. (That was two years after I had left Harvard.) He was against the war and eventually became one of the leaders of the whole anti-Vietnam movement. In fact, he came to Australia and led big marches here. But being young and flamboyant, I came out in favour of the National Liberation Front, NLF. He saw me as a threat to the middle-of-the-road approach and we clashed in a fairly fiery way. I could have followed Seymour Levine's advice to fight against being thrown out of Harvard for such a reason, but by then the scholarship was in jeopardy and I had financial problems, so I didn't think it was an option. In retrospect it should have been, but these things just carry you along.

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A change of scenery: via cancer research to a new PhD opportunity

What did you do when you had to leave Harvard?

I avoided deportation by finding a job at the New England Medical Center Hospitals (associated with Tufts University) as a research assistant to Marshall Kaplan, and they filed the papers that allowed me to stay in the United States.

We were working with alkaline phosphatase, which comes in various iso-enzymic forms. Until then, finding where a tumour might be located in the body required an operation and a biopsy. We developed a method of taking blood samples and separating the iso-enzymes so you could tell whether the iso-enzyme of alkaline phosphatase came from bone or liver, and so where the cancer might be located. The idea of doing this technique came from Marshall Kaplan, but I did the actual working-out of it for him. It was really just cookery: you had to fiddle and get each of the concentrations right. By then I had had quite a lot of training in biochemistry, but you needed to use a bit of intuition about what to add to what. And if it works, it works.

Actually, this became a major technique, even a classic. When I went back to Tufts a year or two later, I was surprised to find that the red carpet went out and everything. There had been more than 1,000 requests for the paper in the first year, and largely as a result Marshall Kaplan had been made Director of the New England Medical Center Hospitals.

Did you think of continuing that work as PhD research?

They did try to encourage me and would have given me a scholarship and so on, but by then I had decided that adding one colourless liquid to another and putting it into a machine to be read was not really what I wanted to do. But at Harvard I had taken a course in animal behaviour, and my interests in that had grown; then I met somebody who had worked for Richard Andrew at Sussex University and she suggested that I try to get in to do a PhD there.

Actually, I first went to London and worked as a teacher in a secondary modern school in the Notting Hill Gate area. That was an experience – the students were like the girls of St Trinian's. I had enjoyed reading those stories, but that was when I realised such girls did exist! When I met Richard Andrew, he did offer to take me on for a PhD, so I continued teaching for a while – about nine months altogether – to get some money, and then took up the PhD at Sussex.

How were you funded?

Well, having lost the George Murray Scholarship I was a bit high and dry. Sussex gave me a scholarship that waived the fees and I had a living allowance, but to help out I taught part-time at the Open University, which was newly started, and did some demonstrating on campus and so on. Also, from time to time my parents sent me a little money, as much as they could afford. So I managed to live, even if very frugally.

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Researching the isthmo-optic nucleus and the effects of testosterone

What work did you do with Richard Andrew at Sussex?

There were two aspects of the PhD work. I started off looking at the effects of lesioning the isthmo-optic nucleus in the chick brain. The isthmo-optic nucleus sends efferent nerves to the retina, and the bird brain is a great place to study that because there is a clear nucleus with a tract going to the eye, whereas in humans and even in amphibia and so on the origin is more diffuse, and, in those species nobody knew exactly where they came from. So, along with Fred Miles, who is now at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington, we looked at the effects of lesioning that nucleus. He was looking at the electrophysiology, the whole feedback loop, and I was looking at some of the behavioural effects.

That was not an easy task. Any kind of lesion you make in a visual system, particularly of that nature, tends to be compensated for, so it's really hard to tease out what the visual lesion is. After working for about a year with indications but nothing particularly concrete, I shifted to look at the effects of testosterone on attention. But I later came back to the isthmo-optic nucleus and did solve it, and got a paper that has recently started to be cited again as people have really got interested in that.

The major part of the thesis, though, was on the effects of testosterone, again given to the chick as a model. I discovered that when you elevate the levels of testosterone, the chicks become attentionally persistent. As a simple example, if you give them red and yellow grains to peck at, the control chick will peck a few times at each colour, switching around, whereas the testosterone treated chick tends to start on, say, yellow, doing a very long run of pecking on that, and then switches to a long run on red. So there was quite clearly a difference in attention switching.

Would these levels of testosterone be higher than normally occur in male chickens in their breeding cycle?

Well, the actual work I did was on young chickens, in which they were certainly very artificially high. But later, when I came back to Monash, I looked at adult roosters – some which were castrated versus those that weren't – and that showed the same attentional persistence in the ones with the higher level of testosterone. So it worked with natural levels.

Presuming that roosters, like the passerines, have elevated levels of testosterone at certain times of the year, in accordance with their breeding cycle, might a linkage between those levels and attention be related to the normal behaviour patterns to do with mating and breeding?

Yes. Richard Andrew showed later, again with the young chick, that one reason why they may show elevated copulation and attack levels when they're given testosterone is that they just lock on to an object. If you give them a cup, say, they will look at it, lock on to it and actually try to attack it, to copulate with it. Of course there is a threshold effect in these elicited behaviours. But another part of the motivation would be that once you've got locked on to an object you are more likely to do something about it. Maybe an adult rooster will lock on to whatever hen it wants to copulate with at that time.

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Learning new approaches to scientific inquiry

Role models are often thought to be important for young scientists. Did you find that working with Richard Andrew enabled you to learn much from him?

Richard was an enormously important role model for me. He is one of the true intellectuals, well educated in the arts as well as the sciences, and he thinks very creatively. He was terribly important to me at that stage of my career because he'd see a little thing happening that I might have tended to throw away and not pay attention to, and he'd build on that. I had to learn to realise that, if not all the animals do the same thing, it may be those few that are doing a different thing that can really tell us more. It was quite a step in my thinking, because previously I had been caught up in the number crunching – 'If X of them do that; that's what they do' – whereas in fact it's some of those that diverge from the expectations that we follow up. Richard taught me to recognise that as part of the art of science.

I know he is retired, but have you continued to collaborate with him?

Yes. In fact, we've just finished editing a book on comparative vertebrate lateralisation. He's very much not retired; like so many people in his situation these days, he finds that retirement has given him time to think and his ideas seem to have moved on to a very new level as a result.

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A return to Australia for a new direction in research

What brought you back from Britain to Australia after your PhD?

For the PhD I took three years, so with the teaching I was in Britain for close to four years overall – seven years away from home. I hadn't any intention, really, to come back. Many of the students who go overseas these days can afford to come back, but in those days it was out of the question. When you left you set sail, in effect, and that was it until you'd finished.

By the time my PhD was finished I had found a niche in England and had become very much an expatriate. Richard Andrew had offered me a good position and I could see a very good career ahead of me in England. But I had a responsibility to my parents, and if I was going to come back it had to be then. It might sound odd to feel responsible in that way at such an age, but I was the last survivor among my parents' three children, so there was an enormous feeling that I should be around for them.

I came back to Monash University, however, not Adelaide. I was offered a lectureship at the University of Tasmania but I didn't take that up – perhaps I was silly not to, but coming back to Australia seemed to be far enough and Tasmania, nice as it is, seemed to be the other end of the earth. But Richard Mark, in Physiology at Monash, offered me a senior tutorship. That was not tenured but it seemed to be research oriented, and Richard had a good reputation and had visited Sussex. Although I didn't actually know him, Richard Andrew did and was very encouraging for me to join him.

And so it was, in 1972, that we first met, when I used to consult with Richard Mark. You and I have known each other for nearly 30 years!

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The chick model delivers insights into memory and lateralisation

Is that when you started to work on memory?

Yes, in a way. Richard had developed, along with Marie Gibbs (his PhD student prior to my coming there), a model using the chick to look at the biological correlates of memory formation. Because of my experience with the chick I took that up and looked at protein synthesis inhibitors and blockage of long-term memory – the 'in' topic at the time.

I found, however, that if you gave cycloheximide, blocking the protein synthesis in the chick, not only did you block the memories that might have formed about the time of the injection but the chick never learnt as well thereafter. So there was an added effect, not just on memory but as some brain damage that resulted from the treatment.

Was the cycloheximide technique something that you or Richard had developed, or was it fairly standard in those days for manipulating consolidation in memory?

Richard and Marie were already using the technique before I came to the lab, having picked it up from Art Cherkin in the United States, I think, so it was a rather new technique using the chick as the model. The chick has now become one of the classic models for studying memory, and that sort of technique is still used – I believe that your colleagues at Monash, John, still use the chick and cycloheximide, as does Steven Rose at the Open University. He had made big progress in looking at the cascade of biological events that occur.

What led you to realise that there were lateralisation effects with memory? Did you already suspect this, or was it a chance observation?

It was a chance observation that you got this long-term effect which I was then teasing out and looking at in more detail: what actually had gone wrong, what was causing it and so on. But Richard Mark had worked with Sperry – which would be your common interest with him too on the lateralisation – and so one day he said, 'Well, why don't you just try injecting cycloheximide into the left or right hemisphere separately?'

Together with my honours student Judith Anson, who is still working in Canberra, I tried that technique and found that on the task of searching for grains on a background of pebbles, long-lasting effects of the cycloheximide were caused only by injecting the left hemisphere. There was no effect at all if you injected the right. (It turned out later that other functions are associated and affected when you inject the right.) So on that one particular task the asymmetry was discovered. Actually, it was at that time pretty revolutionary, apart from Fernando Nottebohm's demonstration that a number of species of songbirds have the centres for singing in the left hemisphere. The syrinx, the musculature, is also lateralised in the songbird. At that stage he had only shown it by cutting the nerves supplying either side of the syrinx; he had not yet taken it to the central nervous system.

Up to that time, lateralisation had been thought to be unique to humans – in fact, seen as the thing that gave us our wonderful superiority of language and consciousness and tool use – and there are still some people around today who think that. But Victor Denenberg, at more or less the same time, was showing laterality in the rat brain.

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How does lateralisation occur? An exciting explanation

Having discovered and documented that asymmetry, you went on to develop Denenberg's point that environmental influences can also modulate laterality. You were the first, perhaps, to note and to develop the interaction of the environmental factors with the genetic print.

After I had discovered this lateralisation, when I was following it up and looking at exactly what things are lateralised, people used to say to me, 'Oh, it's all genetically pre-programmed.' Being a bit of a devil's advocate and, perhaps because of my whole political perspective, my dislike of the idea of these things being pre-programmed, I wished I could show there was some environmental influence. Then one day, when I was just thumbing through Freeman and Vince's very important book on development of the avian embryo, I noticed they had a series of pictures of the embryo in the egg – in the final stages before hatching, the embryo is turned so that the left eye is occluded but the right eye can be stimulated by light that can come through the shell and membranes. And I thought, 'Ah! Perhaps that's it.'

The first experiment, then, was to incubate eggs in the dark and compare them with ones that had been exposed to light during the last stages of incubation, when the visual pathways to the forebrain are becoming functional. Lo and behold, when they were incubated in the dark there was no lateralisation for the behaviours I was looking at: the pebble-grain laterality and also the laterality for attack and copulation. (Now, of course, many years later, we know some lateralities are still present; those are non-visual modalities.)

Later we found that by taking the air sac end off the egg at the stage when the chick's beak has penetrated into the air sac membrane so that it's now breathing air, you can just ease the membrane across, pull the head out gently and put it back into the incubator, but with the head now lying out. Then you can let light go to both eyes or else you can occlude the right eye instead of the left, and the lateralisation follows accordingly.

I know that in mammals you have a small percentage of left-right reversal of the viscera and indeed a number of other structures. Are there any such instances of situs inversus in the chicken?

I believe it occurs, but it's a very rare occasion and, unlike the work done in rats, where people have selected actual lines for that so you can work with it as a model, you could not predict where it is going to occur. I can think of only once when I have opened the egg and found the embryo oriented the other way around. There may have been more that I haven't seen, but it's very rare. And in any case, you could still have the chick oriented the same way but the viscera the other way around.

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Is lateralisation of behaviour significant for survival?

What advantages might accompany lateralisation – or, conversely, what might be the disadvantages of its absence? Why is the vertebrate brain lateralised?

I hope to be able to tell some of the answer to that in a couple of years' time, because it is now my main theoretical interest. And again the chick model turns out to be terrific, because I can make more- or less-lateralised chicks by incubating them in the dark or the light, and then compare the cognitive abilities of those two groups.

Are unlateralised chicks in any way disadvantaged, either in the lab or in other settings?

In the lab we've done one experiment, giving the chick two things to do, which hints at that. The idea was to challenge it by asking its two hemispheres to do two different things at the same time. In the chick, the left hemisphere – and, incidentally, the right eye, because they have completely crossing optic nerves – is used preferentially for finding these pebbles versus grain in pecking to feed. And Chris Evans and Peter Marler showed that if you play to a chicken the alarm call for its own aerial predator, it looks up and scans overhead using its left eye (and hence its right hemisphere). So I designed a test where the chick is pecking on the floor using its right eye-left hemisphere, and then a little model predator comes over the top. It should then look up, using its right hemisphere-left eye for that. Once the dark-incubated, less lateralised chicks started pecking, they were slower to respond to the predator coming overhead. In a natural situation, that slower response could well be a disadvantage.

Is this where you expect your experimental, empirical interests to be directed most?

Well, one thing is to try to follow up more, in a laboratory setting, the advantage of having a lateralised brain – going ahead with these tasks that require competing input from the hemispheres and moving to other sensory modalities. But the other challenge is to ask whether what we are looking at in the lab is just an esoteric thing. Or does it for animals, as we know it does for humans, actually relate to their behaviour in the natural environment? Can you even see it in the natural environment? And now we have some evidence that, yes, animals do show lateralised behaviours in the natural environment.

Some really nice work with fish has been done in Italy by Angelo Bisazza and Giorgio Vallortigara, outside the collaborative work I do with them. Looking at various species of fish, they found laterality in some and not in others. Then they applied to the fish an idea I had, that laterality might have something to do with coordinating social behaviour.

They put one or two fish in a little internal tank and looked at how close the others came to it, so they could get an objective measure of their degree of schooling. Then they looked to see which species are lateralised or not: when a fish swims up to a barrier behind which it sees various stimuli, does it go left or right? It turned out that the ones that school are also lateralised – if they've got a population bias to go one way, then they tend to be a schooling species. (Certainly, to have that bias would keep the shoal together.) Of the ones that didn't school so much, some were lateralised but the majority weren't. So the consistent population bias of lateralisation was present in those species that have a sort of social order in their movement. But of course each different kind of lateralisation might be associated with a different selective pressure, or a different advantage. We should not talk as if it were unitary; it is probably much more complex than that.

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What determines how lateralisation works?

Does some underlying common denominator distinguish the left side of the brain from the right side of the brain in most species – communication versus emotion or, perhaps, spatial processing? And if a final common denominator exists, does one side pre-empt processing at the expense of the other? If so, the big question would be which side, which function, which feature, which aspect of behaviour is the primary one. What are your thoughts on that?

Richard Andrew and I developed a model which we think applies to all vertebrate species, and certainly applies to those studied so far. The left hemisphere seems to be used to control responses that have to be considered, whereas the right hemisphere is more for immediate responses that are given without the pros and cons being weighed up.

In order for the left to fill its role, it has to suppress the spontaneous responses of the right, which is, as you mentioned, for expression of intense emotions and for spatial processing of the kind that uses a map. There are other, added aspects of function in the hemispheres, but as a general model one might say that feeding responses which require the animal to manipulate things or to inhibit pecking at a pebble in order to peck at a grain are left hemisphere: you've got to think about what you do before you respond. But if you're going to just lob an attack peck or strike at an animal – something unspecific which you have to do quickly – that's right hemisphere.

In some recent experiments I did when I was in Italy last, we looked at where a chick strikes. You put two chicks in together which haven't seen each other before. They tend to do attack pecks – not very damaging; some people call them social pecks – at each other. If you look at where they lodge those, you see that they are primarily in the left lateral field, which means right hemisphere. So, left side for attack, right side for feeding responses that have to be considered. And we have shown that the same is true in the toad. When toads strike at prey, they do so in the right hemifield, and if they make a conspecific attack strike, it's on the left. In other work, gelada baboons, if they attack the conspecific, tend to do the one on the left. Deckel, in the United States, has now shown this to be true in lizards also. There is a surprising similarity across many different vertebrates, so it seems to be a fairly basic property.

If the left and the right sides of the brain are different, how do you stand with respect to the currently popular 'educate the right side of your brain' literature? Is it drawing a long bow?

Perhaps there is something in it, but I think it is mostly a waste of time. There is no way you can force that. There may be useful psychological experiments where you really do put information in, presenting it tachistoscopically – with rapid flashes – so that people are looking straight ahead and the information is actually in the peripheral field and they're not turning the eyes to look at it. But that is not how these techniques go on; instead they get people to do all sorts of motor things.

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Appreciating the grey areas as well as the black-and-white

I suppose most of us at some time look back and think, 'Perhaps I shouldn't have published that.' In your long career as a research scientist, Lesley, have there been any papers or findings that you now feel you shouldn't have reported because they went beyond the data, or the mathematics or the technique was wrong, or hindsight suggests a different conclusion?

No, there's nothing I regret having published. There have been odd mistakes in a paper where a label's wrong or a word is spelt wrongly; they always stand out and hit you in the face, and they make me feel very angry. But I don't publish unless I've got tons and tons of data to support my conclusion. One's ideas do move on, though.

For example, from the earliest discovery of light affecting lateralisation I said the light exposure and the orientation of the embryo determined visual lateralisation, full stop, because all the things I had chanced to look at were affected by that. Now I have been looking at some other visual behaviours that are not affected by that experience, and since not all of the visual behaviours are affected in that way, what seemed before to be a black-and-white issue is a little greyer. I would not have stated it so strongly then, had I seen as many as I have now. But that's an evolution of the idea, not the idea being incorrect. It has just been given some more substance.

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Rejoicing in the broadening of knowledge

On the more positive side, is there one paper, one discovery, finding, insight that you are most proud of and would like to be remembered for?

It probably sounds quite trivial to say this, but the work showing the role of light in establishing the asymmetry in the embryo was a breakthrough in thinking, a paradigm shift, I guess. If you say to people that you've discovered such a thing for the chick embryo, they are likely to wonder why the heck it matters. But in fact it's a model system and a way of thinking about how things work. I think that was my biggest single leap.

Do you have students still working in that area, or are you much more now in the behavioural side?

More behavioural, and with many other species. We have a colony of marmosets at the university so I'm doing a lot of work on their lateral preferences and the effects on them of ageing. Also, we have shown very similar laterality in our famous cane toads and in a number of different species, even going off to Sabah in east Malaysia to work on orang-utans in the wild. So the range of species has broadened and the work is applied to what's going on in the natural world – as well as the continued lab work.

It is very hard to get students interested in chickens these days. If you've got primates in the offing, they'll go for those instead. I don't agree with that, myself. You need to ask the question and then think about the best species to use to answer that question, but you get a lot of young people today on the doorstep saying, 'I want to work on orang-utans' or some other species they have latched on to. Perhaps it comes from the television and the documentaries. It's not necessarily a bad thing to take these focus species, but it is important to come from the discipline and ask a question: 'I want to study memory,' or 'Why does this particular molecular system' – or this particular behaviour – 'function in this way?' All too often today it comes not from a theoretical concept but from, 'Oh, that's a nice species. I'd like to work with that.'

Do you have any very good students who want to look at aspects other than lateralisation?

Yes. For example, because of legislative requirements the marmoset colony has for the first time gone outside, and one student that Gisela Kaplan and I co-supervise is actually looking at their stress responses, both physiological and behavioural, to that. He wants to eventually go into the whole thing about animals in captivity and enrichment and so on. I do have other projects going on, with students whom I've either supervised or co-supervised working on them. I think that's terribly important.

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Distinguishing between biological science and convenient explanations

What are your views on sociobiology and the ideas of E O Wilson – this new fad of evolutionary psychology?

I am very opposed to these developments. In fact, my book Sexing the Brain looked at what poor implications that has had for our attitudes to gender, for example. As to Hamer's whole idea of finding a small number of genes or even a gene sequence to explain homosexuality, he claims that even homelessness is on the genome. Yet we all know that homelessness is a much more complex thing than that. There are many societal reasons why people don't have a roof over their heads.

Well, we are down now to 30,000 genes – whatever a gene may be – rather than the 100,000 of about six months ago.

That's right. I am not detracting from the revolution of that; it's quite amazing how the whole field has moved along. The problem occurs, however, when you start to look at complex behaviours, animal or human, and try to use science for a political objective. This is not new but it's certainly on the rise, and evolutionary psychology is not only banal but quite dangerous when it tries to say that certain kinds of human behaviours come from our animal past and are built into our genome. It is used to implement certain social practices which we know from the history of humanity have been to the disadvantage of many groups. It is no different from the thinking that the Nazis used.

There is a very worrying trend in our society to rely on these biological 'explanations' of why one group has more than another or why one group has access to education and jobs when another doesn't. These explanations fail to distinguish between association and causation, but upper-rung people, particularly, like to hear them because they provide a nice pat answer and people don't have to think about anything else. They can just go along being oppressive to those below.

Would you say, then, that the nature/nurture debate is a black-and-white issue, or is the dichotomy invalid – do the two interact at so many levels that one can't separate them?

Yes, exactly. I would agree with you that it is not one extreme or the other. The developmental processes of genetic and environmental influences are quite intertwined. Unfortunately, with the new revolution in molecular technology and the development of evolutionary psychology coming together in quite impossible, rather sinister ways, people are now falling back on genetic explanations for even very complex human behaviour.

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The scientist as researcher, teacher and administrator

As a professor, one has a number of commitments – research, teaching, an increasing amount of administration. Have you enjoyed administering such a large department?

Well, not only was I head of department but I was also, until last year, Deputy Chair of the Academic Board. I decided not to go on to be Chair of the Academic Board because I don't particularly enjoy administration. To be perfectly honest, I do administration because it has to be done; I don't enjoy it at all, so I certainly would not see myself moving into an entirely administrative position.

It was very useful to spend time being head of department, though, because for the first time I saw that many decisions, rather than having some sort of right and logic to them, are pretty random and arbitrary. The way the system works is not always through meritocracy; it is often a matter of who bumps into whom, where and when. I suppose I don't spend enough time working on that approach. Perhaps my future, in terms of climbing up the ladder and the monetary aspects, would have been a lot easier had I found it interesting to do those sorts of things, but I don't. I'm much happier to be with my animals and in my laboratory.

In your research, do you see yourself as somebody who paddles her own canoe, or as a team player? The British philosophy, as I see it, is that graduate students are thrown in the deep end and have to be their own salvation, whereas in America they very much play a role in the overall strategy of the lab or the lab's leader. How should one educate one's graduate students in research?

I guess I'm more inclined towards the British model. It suits my personality more. I like to see students come up with their own ideas. Obviously, there is some guidance and my students tend to be working on laterality, but not all of them are. If they come with a good idea that I think should be supported, I'll go with it. But very often they come without an idea, and then they get put into things that I might suggest to them.

In a way, I do paddle my own canoe. I collaborate with people overseas, particularly in the lab in Italy, but in Australia there is nobody else working directly in my area so doing my own thing is partly a necessity. Also, I probably enjoy it better.

And teaching? Perhaps you would take us through your teaching responsibilities at Monash University and the departments you've worked in.

I was initially in the Physiology Department, later Pharmacology, and I was teaching science and medical students – at first, mostly the medical students. Initially that was quite interesting, because I had done some physiology before, but I had actually been more of a zoologist cum animal behaviourist so I had to do a lot of learning. That was good; I don't regret it by any means.

I also got involved in organising the teaching of sexuality at Monash. In those days it was suddenly realised that a lot of problems that humans have when they go to doctors concern sexual issues and they're afraid to discuss them, and if they do, doctors don't know quite to do. So a number of people from Monash met once a week – over a considerable period of time, actually – in the hospital in Melbourne and even at retreats, and discussed how this program would come into operation. In those days it was seen as a really big thing to teach about sexuality at the university! I was quite actively involved in getting that program going, and then used to do some of the lectures in it. I was teaching physiology every day, with a few lectures thrown in here and there to psychology students, and so on.

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Resolving identity problems in scientific disciplines

You have expertise in physiology, in pharmacology and also in animal behaviour. When did your interests in the more behavioural aspects of lateralisation take on?

It's a strange thing: once I discovered lateralisation it got me hooked. I'm still fascinated by it. I did do other things as well, such as looking at effects of 2,4,5-T on the developing brain, but lateralisation has been an abiding interest ever since the day I got into it. In a way, it has just gone on from one stage to the next: from teasing out the interaction with experience, I got onto looking at the role of hormones and how they interacted with it, and developing the model, going from behaviour to looking at visual pathways and how they develop. But now I am interested in what it actually means ecologically for animals in the natural environment.

And that has brought you back to your very early days when you were interested in zoo keeping, zoology in the broad sense. So do you see yourself as a psychologist, a primatologist, a behaviourist, a physiologist, all of these things? Or are these artificial boundaries that we should be forgetting in the 21st century?

For me they are. I think I've always had an identity problem in science. I wasn't really a standard physiologist and certainly not a standard pharmacologist, and now I'm not a standard zoologist. I think the strength of my work is to be able to integrate various things and I have tried to move intellectually with that.

I firmly think we should have discipline training, so that people know how to think in certain logical ways. I'm opposed to what is happening in the current education system, where people don't come out with a good training in a discipline but just shop around and grab at little ideas.

Should those disciplines be the traditional ones, like physics, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology and pharmacology, or are we carving nature at an inappropriate set of joints these days? Should we be looking for other ways of directing research and the modelling of the world?

There are two levels there. When we talk about modelling of the world I think we do need to move and change, but when it comes to teaching I'm very old-fashioned and think an undergraduate course should have the traditional structures. People should come out of a university able to profess their discipline. There should be physical sciences, biological sciences and social sciences, but I look with dismay at the disappearance of the need to do physics and chemistry in a regular science degree. I know that a lot of people have to be drawn along to those lectures kicking and screaming, but they are part of a way of thinking, a very important part of understanding that leads you to other areas. Without that good strong basis in the fundamental sciences you'll never have the flexibility and power of thinking that you need later on. I am all for having environmental sciences and other things taught in universities, and they should be part of a package that students can do, but there is a need for training as scientists first. Those other things can be taught, obviously – they are science – but there is a manner of thinking that you can only get by going to some of the fundamental subjects.

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Transcending stereotypes to follow a passion for science

Have you found science so worthwhile and stimulating that you would encourage a close relative of yours to follow in your footsteps?

Yes. I always tell students that the important thing is to find out what you feel passionately about and do it, no matter what the opposition is. It doesn't have to be science; it could be in any other area. We only have one life to live, and the important thing is to live it passionately and do something with it, not do something just because your parents or your teacher thinks it would be good. It's got to come from within. Science can be extremely fulfilling, but if you're passionate about it there are opportunities – and of course they are increasing.

What words of advice would you give a girl who said she was passionate about following a research career in science?

I would say, 'Do it, and don't be steered off by any opposition you meet'. Actually, when you look at who does science, you see that there are more women than men: at the laboratory bench, working as research assistants or in the lower levels of the academic career. But when we look at who actually makes the decisions in science, we see that women have a very low representation. That is what we need to change. We need more women in science and we need to change the face of decision making control in science. I would like a lot of those women who get a degree and then just go off doing other people's science as research assistants to say at some point in their lives, 'Look, I'd like to follow my own ideas. Let's go beyond this'.

Do you think things like this series of videos play a useful role in countering the gender stereotypes and encouraging girls, particularly, to take up science?

I don't know. Certainly it is important that students who are contemplating a career in science see there is a career there for women. But it is still not an easy one.

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The best environments for the best research efforts

Things have changed enormously in the 30 years that you and I have worked in our respective disciplines. Is there a future for universities in the next 30 to 50 years – for the lab as we know it, even for pure blue-sky research as we know it?

I certainly hope, John, that we turn back to that. I say that not only because those are the interests I have and there are young people who will be coming along with similar interests that need to be nurtured, but because it is important for the long-term future of a country that this occurs. It is in Australia's interest to continue to be like that. Australia has been a world leader in many areas in science – medical science, in particular – but we have let much of that fall away. Some of the countries that moved into much more applied research even earlier than we did are now saying it was a mistake and going back to the older models. So I'm hoping that's just round the corner for Australia too, and not too much damage is done before we pick up those important threads. I would also like to see funding go back to supporting individuals, encouraging them to row their own boat, rather than only supporting team research.

It used to be easier than now to publish as an individual. What do you think about the development of the 'invisible college', whereby a group in America, Italy, Britain, loosely collaborates for a particular topic, a particular area, a particular technique?

That's not a bad thing, you know. With the Web and so on, communication opens up. I have always seen science as an international thing, not just national, and I think that is very much in Australia's interest too, given our position in the world.

There has been some talk lately of thrusting people within an institution together: 'if they're not working together they should be made to work together'. I think that's a disaster. If people work together, they do so, it just grows. It's an organic thing. Much of research collaboration or writing books together involves finding not only the right sort of academic person but also people you can get on with. It must have in it something to do with the human element. You may work with the brightest mind in the field in your area, but if you don't get on you won't share anything.

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Widening the audience for scientific knowledge

You mentioned writing a book with Richard Andrew. I know you've written a number of popular and semi-popular works as well. How might you make such books available to a wider audience?

Well John, I should add that having left Richard Andrew's lab (although I've never really felt I have, because I've kept in close contact with him over the years) I was very fortunate in going to Richard Mark's lab. Richard Mark has many of those similar qualities. He too practises science as an art form, and he writes beautifully. He taught me how to write, really. He first taught me how to write scientific papers, when I was working with him, and from there I've moved on over the years. And you taught me how to write books – I would never have written a book if you hadn't asked me to write one with you. It was a great honour for me that you asked, but it was also a new step in my life, because although I had mastered papers and could do them, writing a book seemed to be in the blue sky somewhere. It was by working with you that I realised doing it was a possibility. Then I got onto the idea of writing more popular science books, which I've thoroughly enjoyed. It is actually much harder – for me, anyway – than writing scientific papers, because I've got to think about how I write. I would not by any means say I have really mastered that art, but I have enjoyed trying to do so and I continue to.

So what will the next book be?

The next book, which is coming out next month, is actually by Gisela Kaplan and Lesley Rogers – I'm the second author on that – with the title Birds: Their Habits and Skills. It takes into account many years of work with birds by each of us, in different ways, and it tries to put those ideas in a more general context to appeal to a broad readership. And the next one after that is going to be on wild dogs!

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Giving the Eureka moments a chance to occur

I have been struck by the role that chance has played in my career, at least. So many things have happened unexpectedly. Chance probably does 'favour the prepared mind', but how much has your scientific career depended on your happening to be the right person at the right place, at the right time?

Perhaps all the way along the line there has been an element of chance. I think it does depend on who you meet and where the ideas fall into place. For example, the significance of the orientation of the chick in the egg suggested itself because I just happened to be going through the books at the ideal time. And again, discovering that it wasn't only behaviour that was lateralised but there was actually a neural structure we could find was a result of chance. A visitor to my lab, doing some labelling of neural pathways with these tracer dyes, happened to think, 'Well, let's give it a go.' And when we saw it, that was a Eureka moment. Yet it was chance – he happened to come, he was looking at something entirely different, I offered him the place in the lab, we then decided to just give it a go, and it turned out.

To me there is a similarity between the arts and the sciences – the chance aspect, the human aspect, the creative aspect, the thought that floats into one's mind, often at inopportune times, and has to be captured before you lose it. Is this how you've seen your science developing?

Yes. Connections like that, between people and ideas, have to just grow of their own accord. They can't be imposed upon scientists and research, or any other discipline, in my opinion. If you give better communication – as I said before, the Web's there and can be used in that way – something will emerge out of that. But to say, 'We will only fund science if you've got this or this mould that it fits into,' is a death knell to it.

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Research funding: taking all the potentials into account

At a time when it's very difficult to be an expert even in a single narrow discipline, I think you could be regarded as an expert in a number of disciplines. Has this breadth of activity ever proved a problem in getting funding or recognition?

Oh, it has probably been an advantage, because the more you've acquired different areas, the more likely you are to come up with a new idea in bridging them.

Yet we are increasingly being asked by government and grant giving bodies to justify our research. In view of such questions, what would you say have been the spinoffs, the applications, the 'utilitarian' aspects of your findings?

The laterality work has been pure research, although it does have potential application in the sense of providing a model which we can look at. As you well know, many dysfunctions of the human brain relate to laterality, so if we can study it in animals and we have developed a model, we have the tool to do that.

As far as the development of neurones goes, and the work I've done on the interaction between experience and hormones in their development – how they grow and die off in response to those influences – that is important in our understanding of the development of the brain. I mentioned that I am now, using the marmosets as a model, looking at what happens to laterality as an animal ages. And even though I would not say you can apply these models directly to humans, they do give us a basis to start thinking about whether the same things happen in humans.

It has certainly been thought that the dysfunctions associated with Alzheimer's might be preferentially lateralised.

Yes. It has been a bit fashionable to think of laterality as relevant to every kind of problem, including schizophrenia. That seems a bit over the top, but there probably are some elements that will be terribly important. Certainly discovering lateralisation in the chick brain has led to an important step for the people working on memory, very often using the chick as a model. They would use one side of the brain as the control for the other, thinking, 'Well, I've trained the animal monocularly, so I've trained its contralateral hemisphere. I now can look at what the biochemical events are in that one and compare them with the other side where I haven't trained it, because I've put a patch over that eye.' This is what Steven Rose's lab and various others had been doing. When I discovered the laterality in the brain, Steven Rose said to me, 'What are you wasting your time doing that for? What's the point of it?' but I could tell him, 'Well, in your own work you use one side as the control for the other, but if the left and the right hemispheres are in fact different, they cannot be a control, one for the other.' (He didn't ever say I was right, but he doesn't work like that any more.)

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Satisfactions and setbacks: social responsibility in science

What are your views on social responsibility, the role of science in society generally?

I have very strong views that science should be for the people in general. In fact, I started a Science for the People group when I was in Melbourne, before I moved to the University of New England [in New South Wales]. While that group was in operation we did some quite interesting things, getting into the whole question of spraying 2,4,5-T to control blackberries in national parks and so on. We had some demonstrations and some lectures on that, at the time when the whole issue of the use of Agent Orange had come to a head.

In fact, you were an expert witness, were you not, for the Vietnam veterans?

Yes. While I was in the Pharmacology Department at Monash, an honours student came to me saying she'd like to work on toxic chemicals in the environment. Geoff Bentley, who was Associate Professor in the department at that time, said, 'Well, why don't you try 2,4,5-T on the chick eggs and see what happens?' I thought, 'Mm, it's a bit of a nasty thing to do, but it could be important,' so we went ahead and did that. We showed that there were behavioural abnormalities caused by doses one-hundredth the kind that were known to cause the physical deformations. That was taken up by the media and I got into all sorts of political hoo-ha.

Do you think it was in any way an impediment to your career?

Yes, I think it was. It was published in Science and so on, but it was an impediment because the political forces at that time were not in favour of it. (The government was trying to get out of having to pay compensation to Vietnam veterans.) And something quite fascinating happened. After that was in the papers in Australia, I was getting phone calls from farmers as well as Vietnam veterans, saying they suffered from these and these symptoms. First of all I'd say, 'Oh but look, my work's on chickens; I don't have anything to do with humans.' But after several phone calls and just listening to these people I thought, 'These symptoms are the same.' Then a farmer from Sale phoned up when I had been talking to a veteran from Sydney. I said, 'Look, why don't you two talk to each other, because the effects you're talking about sound mighty similar.' It was just a chance thing; I don't see myself all that instrumental in what followed, except the penny dropped. That gave rise to the Vietnam veterans' movement, which eventually led to the Royal Commission where I gave evidence.

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Drawing the line in acceptable research

I am sure you would feel some areas of science should not be investigated. On the other hand, the knowledge gained from your work on toxicity and chickens enabled us to draw vital conclusions about human involvement. Where should we draw the limits? Are there any aspects of pure knowledge that we shouldn't research?

All new knowledge has the potential to be abused. It is the responsibility of the scientist to think about that before taking part in it. In retrospect, if I had been in a position to direct where money for research would be spent, I would not have wanted the scientists to work in developing the atom bomb. Of course times change and you can look at these things differently afterwards, and even today I think a lot of the areas of research that get huge amounts of money are not necessarily where it ought to be going. Research, we have to accept, is big business as well as a pure seeking of knowledge for human good, and that concerns me greatly.

I am also concerned at the present idea in Australia and elsewhere in the world that we have to be much more applied. Many of the breakthroughs in science have occurred with nobody ever thinking about what they could end up with, but this is what we are seriously losing in Australia – and have actually lost, to a large extent. We'll have to go back to it if we want to be at the forefront.

How to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable research is a difficult one, though. You do need to monitor that; you do need bodies of informed people. But perhaps, rather than government having a major role in directing research, it could be done along lines such as we have now for animal ethics, with committees that have representatives not only from science but from many different bodies. In some senses we have that now, but I think it could become much more influential in how things are funded. Instead we are moving rapidly away from any of those models to dollar driven research. And, unfortunately, most of that research is very short-lived.

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Enjoying life's fascinations

When you're not engaged in science, what are your interests, recreations, relaxation?

With a friend I have a rainforest property, an absolutely beautiful place, in northern New South Wales. The idea is to preserve some of Australia's wonderful bush, with a long-term aim of protecting it in various ways and then, hopefully, handing it over to the government. But also, in a very non-altruistic way, I am personally fascinated by learning more about plants and insects, species about which I know very little now. I'm just getting into exploring all that. That has become a very involved hobby – and an expensive one.

I think that as a child you learned to fish. Do you still do that?

No, I don't, because I don't like killing fish. I like the experience of fishing, but once when I had caught a fish I was told that I'd better kill it myself, and that was the end of fishing for me.

But I used to enjoy playing the cello – even if nobody particularly enjoyed listening to me. I used to play with the local community symphony orchestra. In the last four years of my father's life, when he was totally blind, I just couldn't keep all that up. Although I've let it fade away and I don't play the cello at all any more, I've got it sitting right alongside my desk and there will be a day, I hope not too far away, when I'll go back to it (even if I have to start all over again).

Will you ever retire, Lesley?

I won't retire from living until I have to, and they take it away from me! But I always want to do research at a different level. I will certainly retire from the university system and I'll probably retire from being 100 per cent of my time in the laboratory. I would like to do a lot more looking at animals in the natural environment, and I think during retirement I'll develop more of my field interests.

Thank you, Lesley, for giving us this interview.

Thank you, John. It was a great pleasure.

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