PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The school year has just ended at Brown, but David Berson, professor of neuroscience, is already thinking of next year’s lectures. Because of two awards recognizing his groundbreaking work, he’ll be in the lectern spotlight both at Brown this fall and an annual meeting of research colleagues from around the world next spring.
Berson learned of both honors — the Brown University Presidential Faculty Award and the Friedenwald Award of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology — within a little more than a week last month.
They recognize a career of studying the light-detecting cells of the retina and the way those cells communicate visual information back to the brain. A particularly seminal moment was the 2002 discovery of a photoreceptor that has key roles in the development of the retina and the visual system, control of the circadian clock, control of the pupil, and the levels of melatonin in the blood.
The awards are each top honors in Berson’s two main professional peer groups, and they each come with the invitation – which he sees as both an exciting opportunity and a daunting challenge – to address those peers.
Honor of a “lifer’s” lifetime
The Presidential Faculty Award means an especially great deal to Berson as someone who describes himself as a Brown “lifer.” He graduated from Brown with an A.B. in psychology in 1975 and but for his graduate studies at MIT and a brief postdoctoral appointment in Boston, he’s been at Brown ever since, first as a postdoctoral fellow with James McIlwain and, stating in 1985, as faculty member.
“The Presidential Faculty Award is a huge honor and particularly meaningful to me,” Berson said. “Cut me and I bleed Brown. So it’s deeply gratifying when, in making this award, my alma mater reassures me that I have done something of value with all it has invested in me.”
The entire faculty is invited to the corresponding lecture this fall. That poses a “refreshing challenge,” said Berson, who is the Sidney A. Fox and Dorothea Doctors Fox Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Science.
“Making headway in one’s own field requires intense focus, and my academic presentations generally emphasize very specific ideas, mechanisms, and technical details,” he said. “My challenge is to reveal deep principles that have emerged from, but transcend, the tiny universe that constitutes my life’s work – principles that speak to the poet, the political scientist, and the particle physicist.”
A big crowd in Denver
Next May in Denver when he receives the Friedenwald Award before 11,000 colleagues, Berson will be free to be as specific and technical as he wants, but he has two broader goals already in mind. One will be to craft a “spellbinding story that will convey my spine-tingling awe at the transcendent complexity, order, and beauty of the eye.”
Perhaps more importantly, Berson’s other goal will be to acknowledge that while many scientists are just as enthusiastic, fewer are as lucky and as well-supported as he said he has been.
“Doing science takes passion,” Berson said. “It is hard work, punctuated with frustration, disappointment, and anxiety, especially in these times of tight money. Everyone in this game deserves to be honored and appreciated.
“I have been incredibly lucky in my career in so many ways,” he said. The lecture will also serve, therefore, “to acknowledge my indebtedness to my colleagues, mentors, students, and family for all they have done to help me pursue my dreams.”