Interview with Louise Hainline, Ph.D., Dean of Research and Graduate Studies
by Liz Lonergan
Dr. Louise Hainline, our interviewee this month, is the Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at City University of New York, Brooklyn College Campus. Her academic career has been focused on the study of vision in newborns. She is also a passionate advocate of public higher education and of getting girls and women interested and engaged in science and technology. She is affiliated with the New York Chapter of American Women in Science (AWIS), a non-profit dedicated to fostering an interest in science in girls and women. Dr. Hainline spoke to us from her office in Brooklyn, where she is looking forward to the gardening season, and planning her next trip to an exotic port.
What is the most interesting scientific development you have seen in your lifetime?
The human genome project, it’s exciting and amazing and it will fuel scientific discoveries for the next 100 years. Now they are on to other things, like the zebra fish and mealworm. It puts into perspective some of our cultural theories about human differences, they are there but they are in the margins genetically. Our differences are not deep in our genomes. The small genetic difference between chimps and us are just amazing to me, and does pose some interesting questions.
Your work has been focused on sensory and perceptual development in infants. What does this mean? Do infants have more cognition than we think?
I am very interested in how the brain learns to see and I spent much of my career doing research on how an infant gets their basic visual sense, that is, what is the course of visual development in infants. They can see at birth but what they can see is limited. Infants are responsive to key visual aspects of the world and so much of their development is going on in parallel. We look at the basic capabilities of the visual system and the brain’s ability to make sense of it all. We used to track normal infants but by accident fell into doing assessments of infants who have visual problems. Scientists have heavily studied the visual system and we have found that there is a genetic blueprint for how the visual system is organized, and it is flexible in how it wires up, and how it wires up depends on condition of use. Children who are born with something that prevents them from seeing normally, like cataracts, near sightedness or amblyopia (“lazy eye”) live through some period of deprivation, and the system modifies itself and loses the ability to change. If a scientist or researcher can find the restrictions, they may be able to prevent them. Additionally, we found that early detection was most helpful in correcting problems and that parents, especially mothers, who were thought not objective enough to reliable report on their infants, were very good judges of visual clues and should be listened to. Doctors tended to dismiss the parents perceptions and sense of possible vision problems, and the research of our lab and others convinced us that parents were good evaluators of their infant’s condition. It also taught us that we should not wait until first grade to screen children for vision problems, children should be checked very early and problems treated early for the best results.
That was my former life (laughs), now I am an administrator and dean, and I enjoy it, but I don’t plan to stay here forever. One of my goals in this job is to try to develop a program on how people learn science in higher education. We want to conduct experiments in teaching science, to find out what methods work and why they work.
If you weren’t a scientist and Professor of Psychology, what would you be doing?
I might have gone into engineering because I like to tinker and take stuff apart. I took the law boards but decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I am fascinated by entrepreneurs, because they are the people who build businesses and take that risk. I love to listen to them talk, they are engaging and I like to hear how assess their market and business. Academics is a structured life, I guess, (laughs), kind of like being a carthorse, you get saddled up and you just do the work. I don’t think I could be an entrepreneur, I don’t think I’d be good at having that much risk. So, I have no idea what I’d be doing, but it would probably be in an academic environment. I've been in a school setting since I was five. I must like it.
Why do you love New York?
Well, I’m originally a New Englander who came to work at Brooklyn College and thought I’d be in New York City for just a few years, but the city gets into your system. It’s very intimidating at first, but now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I like the restaurants, the theatre, the culture, the museums and you know I actually go to the theatre and the museums (laughs). I also love the diversity and the fact that there are lots of hard working people living here who are here who are from elsewhere, and we all fit here.
What would be a perfect day for you?
I really like working and I like solving problems, working with data, making sense of it and applying it to a problem. Now that I’m an administrator the problems are less with data and more institutional but the process is the same; the problem presents itself and you ask the questions, how do I solve it, what kind of data do I need, what’s next. It’s flexing a different set of mental muscles to solve different types of problems.
What quote or motto has inspired you throughout your life?
Hmm, I can’t think of just one, I have several quotes that I have hung up in my office lab. One of my favorites is by Isaac Asimov, it’s about science and discovery, and it says:
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny ...'
I mean, it’s so appropriate for scientists. The public, they don’t really understand science, it’s all about the prizes and the headlining discoveries. But most of science is about grubbing around in the garbage, looking for stuff (laughs). And I just love the Asimov quote, because it’s so true, so much happens by accident, and you are so unprepared for the most interesting stuff. Just like life!
I also like “The Cure for boredom is curiosity but there is no cure for curiosity”. I have no idea who said it, I just like it.
There has been a lot of flap over the remarks Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, made over women in the sciences? If you had the opportunity to personally respond to Mr. Summers, what would you say?
Read the literature and the papers, Larry, and look internationally. Look across cultures, I mean, take Eastern Europe, they have many women in science and technology, and girls see it as a valid educational or career choice. We need to tell girls that science is a proper role for women. Socialization pressures and cultural pressures can be high for girls and those of us who go into it either have oppositional personalities (laughs) or were encouraged by someone who communicated to us that societies’ messages don’t have to be listened to.
What artist or artistic event would you wait in line to see?
I don’t wait in line for anything; I get my tickets on line (laughs). People wait in line still? Oh, what do I like, well, I just got tickets for A Streetcar Named Desire, and a new show from London, oh, what is the name (laughs). Last weekend we went to the (Salvador) Dali show in Philadelphia, and the new Museum of Modern Art is just spectacular. (Laughs) And I don’t wait in line there either, I’m a member. MOMA has changed the locations of some of their hallmark pieces of art, and now they’re in such unexpected places. Oh, and there’s lots of glass, and light, and those pieces that have moved, now you see some of your favorites from a different perspective. And I just love The Naguchi museum in Long Island City, its a little known treasure.
How can the educators reading this encourage girls and women to consider careers in science and technology?
We need to help people who have potential get through the system. Women see this as untraditional fields, and the research says they lose interest when they are in junior high. But it’s not impossible to sustain girls interest in science. There are lots of studies that show that girls whose fathers tell them they can stay in science and still be feminine stay and succeed in science. Fathers and other male role models like teachers, guidance counselors and other male family members play an important role in encouraging girls to take an interest in and choose the technical fields as a college major and as a career. We need to help girls learn that being interested in science is not incongruent with being a woman, and it especially works when a man tells them this. To me that means that men have to talk to girls and young women about science, and that it’s OK to be interested in it and that the intellectual opportunities exist for them.
What female scientist from history would you most like to have lunch with?
I am intrigued by Barbara McClintock, who proved that genes can jump; jumping genes (laughs) were her specialty. They were corn genes, maize, and she proved they could move around and between chromosomes. She seemed feisty and I like feisty women.
I would also like to meet Dolly Parton; she is smart, talented and knows exactly what she’s doing. I’ve never been to Dollywood, but I’d like to go there someday. I’ve never been to Graceland either; maybe I’ll do both in one trip (laughs).
What do you do when you have downtime?
Let’s see, well, I like to garden and, of course, I love to go to the theatre. I also love to fool around on the Internet. When I was a kid I liked to read the encyclopedia, you know, just open it up and read, and see where it pointed me to next. The Internet is like an encyclopedia, this morning, I start looking for something that my husband was interested in. A Planimeter, do you know what that is? (Laughing) I didn’t either; but it’s an old drafting instrument that manually measures the area on a drawing. They used to use them, but now they’re all digital. So I found one on e-Bay and then I looked up how to use it, etc. That’s why I was late for work this morning (laughs); I just couldn’t stop reading about Planimeters!
I also love books but don’t read much. I SCUBA dive and fish, mostly catch and release, but I just love it. I also love to travel, and I’ve been to some really neat and exotic places, Alaska, Peru, Antarctic, South America. I like people and I like to go out and see how people live. I think I would have liked to have been an anthropologist but I just don’t get languages. I mean, I can learn the rules and all the tenses and grammar, but I don’t have an affinity for the languages.
Coke or Pepsi?
Water for me.
Nature or nurture?
Oh, both, they so inextricably bound you cannot separate them.
Anything else you would like to tell us?
Well, just a couple of things; I’ve been thinking about some of the things you asked, about my work, and I thought of something I’d like to say about public higher education. I like working in public higher education because you never throw people away, and that’s so important. Public education allows you to get an education at any age, it’s never too late. You can take classes right after high school, then work for a few years and come back to it, with a renewed focus. We see it every day, and it’s so exciting for us and for the students. I wish New York State would think more strategically about higher education, it’s so important, and you see so many success stories working here. Public higher education is so tied to economic development, and so necessary for people, for jobs. I think we could do a better job of it, invest more (money) in it, because when it works it works for everyone.
One of my grad students said it was National Girlfriends and Sisters Week, and I have something I’ll send you about that. It’s kind of a joke, but it’s about how we can support each other. It’s so important to support each other and to have fun, don’t you think?