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Life on the Outside: The Neuroscientist and the Sea

Life on the Outside: The Neuroscientist and the Sea
Dan Johnston is an avid fisherman every summer when he is not studying neurons and their role in learning and memory at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole.
Dan Johnston fishingDan Johnston spent ten summers staring at the boats out on the ocean, off the coast of Cape Cod, before he decided it was time to go fishing.

“I was back in Texas one winter, and I got on the Web and started searching for used fishing boats,” says Johnston, a professor of neurobiology and the director of the Center for Learning and Memory. “I didn’t know anything about fishing. But sight unseen, I bought an old boat. The next summer, I bought a bit of gear, went out on the water, dropped my line and waited for the fish to come.”

Ever since, Johnston has divided his summers in Cape Cod between doing research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and matching wits with, among other species, bluefish, striped bass, flounder, tuna, mahi mahi and marlin.

He’s now on his fourth boat, a 37-footer named “Handshake,” and he’s gathered around him a group of like-minded neuroscientists from around the world who live to toggle between the lab and the sea. They typically go out on a Saturday or Sunday morning, leaving dock early enough to catch the sunrise, and stay out most of the day.

Johnston says it’s a chance to relax with friends while soaking in the splendor of the Atlantic. When the fish are biting, he says, it can also be quite a high. Even when they’re not biting, it can be intellectually satisfying in a very familiar way.

“I’m an experimentalist,” says Johnston. “The types of physiology experiments I do as a neuroscientist are real-time experiments. We record the electrical activity of brain cells, and while we’re doing recordings, we’re doing manipulations, and we’re changing things in response to what we see. Fishing is the same thing. You’re always doing experiments, testing things out, learning by trial and error and slowly improving. You move to another location, you try a different tide, a different time of day. Each summer I learn a little bit more.”

Over the last few years, Johnston has extended his range to places like Alaska, Vancouver, Mexico and Port O’Connor, Texas, usually hiring a guide who knows the local seascape. In Cape Cod, however, it’s Johnston who’s become the expert.

“In the last two summers I’ve never had a fishing trip where I didn’t catch a fish,” he says. “I don’t always catch as many fish as I’d like, but I haven’t been skunked in a while. I find that as I get better and better, I’ll see that other boats are following where I’m going. They want to know where I’m fishing. I get phone calls from people saying, ‘So, did you catch anything?’ Of course I say no.”
Office Hours: Tanya Paull
Globetrotting: Sheldon Ekland-Olson


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Saturday, 18 September 2021

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