Avis Cohen


Mathematician Lisa Fauci suggested I contact Avis Cohen to add to the project.  Avis sent me this wonderful bio called “Snapshots of growing up female in the ‘40’s, ‘50s and beyond”

 Born Avis Hope Schulner, November 29, 1941, just before WWII started. Finishing school for unfinished girls; Future Nurses of America; “Don’t be too smart, the boys won’t like you!”; Rock Around the Clock; Sons of the American Revolution award – but a problem, she’s jewish! Oh well, nevermind after the teachers argued with them. Being groped in the darkroom, being groped in the library. Married at 19; pregnant at 22; mother of two at 26. Onto the “sixties”! The Vietnam war, anti-war demonstrations; SDS; full-time mom, taking the kids to demonstrations…. Then off the walls with no more wars to fight. Books implied women, careers, marriage and family didn’t go together; you couldn’t do all of them, could you? Through a Danforth Fellowship for women who go back to school and meeting the emerging feminists – maybe I could?? WHY NOT?? At least I could try… and I did – but couldn’t of without Mika Salpeter as a role-model and supporter when other women, including my mother, said I’d destroy my children and marriage – and my kids are great, now 48 and 45, and a 26 year old grandchild, and marriage going well after 51 years together…. YES!!

I began my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago in 1959, and there met biopsychology and the ethologists of America of the time. Eckhard Hess was there, and I learned all about Lorenz and his geese and chicks imprinting. I learned all about the psychobiology of stress from Ted Schaefer, my mentor and boss. We also discussed the reasons why ethology was having such difficulty gaining a foothold in this country in the ‘50s. The fear of the Nazi’s was still very strong. The notion that behavior was genetically determined, and therefore, perhaps racially specified, was a hard sell to a nation that had won the war against such doctrines. There were even non-native explanations for pecking in chicks – for example, the head was bobbing on the heart, providing a teaching signal for the movement. At Chicago, I also learned about Austin Reisen’s visual deprivation experiments, and met my first laboratory chimps. Most importantly, I was caught by the intellectual excitement of the College at University of Chicago, and began to understand the joy of intellectual life. I was also exposed to discovery and experimentation in a research laboratory. I was on my way to an academic life with biology as the major focus.

I left Chicago after two years, to continue my education while joining my new husband, Marshall Cohen, a math graduate student, at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My experience with rats at Chicago got me a lab job at Michigan, working in a psychology laboratory, implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, and recording their “galvanic skin responses” when they were exposed to surprise stimuli. The work was published, with me as a co-author, but sitting in comparative physiology from Richard Dawson, I learned that rats had no sweat glands – OOPS! My former boss in the Psychology Department had also learned this embarrassing fact by that time, but the harm was done…. That’s one paper I never referenced or put into my CV. The experience also led me to biology and away from psychology. I worked for a brief time with Don Maynard, who developed the stomoatogastric preparation for motor systems research. He was very impressive; so impressive, I was afraid of failing him, and left his lab to work with Billy Frye, a gentle southerner who didn’t scare me as much. However, Maynard influenced me more than anyone else during those early years before his premature death a few years later. He gave me a glimpse of the power of clear and logical thinking and helped me understand and appreciate what constituted sloppy thinking and its origins. He also helped me accept that mine was the better variety even when it sometime disagreed with others.

I claimed my BS at Michigan in 1964, only a year behind schedule, and went home to bear and raise my first son, and accompany my husband to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. Here I was to continue my political formation. I joined my first demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and worked like a madwoman for McCarthy, Eugene, that is, only to learn a cynical lesson about American politics as we watched the disastrous Chicago Democratic Convention in 1967. The voice of 40% of the party was completely suppressed by the mainstream of the party, and the Johnson/Humphrey supporters prevailed. On the scientific front, I was exposed to a mathematical theory called catastrophe theory developed by Rene Thom. The theory was one of the early mathematical frameworks applied to biology. Unfortunately, it was prematurely and loosely applied, causing considerable skepticism about the usefulness of dynamical systems modeling, of which this was an example. However, I was convinced that dynamical systems, if done well, offered a powerful approach to discontinuous phenomena so common in biology.

In 1968, my husband accepted a position in the Math Department at Cornell University, where he has been ever since. Off we went again, now with two sons in my full time care. I soon discovered that my view of dynamical systems was shared by a new Professor at Cornell, Eric Lenneberg, in Neurobiology and Behavior. Being a full time mom was wearing very thin. I applied to graduate school at Cornell to do a master’s degree with Lenneberg. I had no idea at that time that I would become a full time academic. I thought I’d be a technician or do such thing as befit a married woman of my generation. However, I was accepted in the PhD program, as Cornell didn’t give a MS. Lenneberg assumed I could do anything – but could I? He sent me into development of motor systems, his first love, even though his work mainly centered around language development and aphasia and he knew nothing of modern motor systems. He also suggested I apply for a Danforth Fellowship for Women – and I got it. GULP! Now I really had to do it!

The years at Cornell were most influenced by Lenneberg as well as the psychology people including most importantly J.J. and Eleanor Gibson and Ulrich Neisser, soon to be called cognitive psychologists. I also had a wonderful cohort including Helen Neville, another of Eric’s students, as well as other notables such as Martha Constantine (now -Paton), Peter Narins, Albert Feng and Bruce Land. I learned that psychology was more than some of the thin concepts I had been exposed to earlier, and that biology and psychology could be happily united if done carefully – not easy, but possible. Martha and I read development, and formed our own opinions of the great debate between Paul Weiss and Roger Sperry. One small piece of this debate was to form the basis of my thesis. I wouldn’t answer any major (or even minor question) in this realm, but it did lead me into motor systems and control of locomotion.

In 1973, my family and I went back to the University of Michigan for a semester where I had the very good fortune to work with Carl Gans. He was to become my major mentor from that point on, especially as Eric was more and more unable to help me. And finally, when Eric committed suicide, it was Gans, as well as Bob Capranica who took over and guided me through.

During my last year of graduate school, I heard Sten Grillner give a talk about CPGs (central pattern generators). I was stunned. On the basis of Nicholas Bernstein’s early work, Lenneberg had predicted such things would exist. He had missed the evidence that they did. However, there was no question that this was to be my direction.

In 1977, two children and a husband in tow, I left for Stockholm and the Karolinska Institute. My husband was correct – there was NO topology in Sweden, but he made frequent trips to Germany to stay alive. After two years, Peter Wallen and I did show that the isolated spinal cord could produce the full swimming motor pattern (to be called “fictive swimming”). However, it took many months of frustration struggling with electrical stimulation of the tracts, only to happily accept the idea of the American lamprey, Ichthyomyzon unicuspis from Carl Rovainen, and Margaret Poon’s idea of pharmacological stimulation with excitatory amino acids, e.g., D-glutamate which together worked like a charm.

In spring of 1979, I returned to Cornell University with no job. The Math Department generously provided me with an office in the basement, while I wrote grant proposals. Over 1980, I maintained an intermittent post-doctoral position with Carl Rovainen at Washington University. He has remained an important figure for me since. Back in the Cornell Math Department, I met Philip Holmes, a new faculty member looking for problems to catch his interest, and Richard Rand, an old friend. I explained the difficulty of understanding the coordinating system of the lamprey – almost nothing could destroy it! It clearly showed ascending and descending effects, and was very complicated anatomically. So began a wonderful collaboration. In 1982 we published our first paper on systems of coupled non-linear oscillators, using dynamical systems theory (!). I had returned.

But mathematicians have half-lives of about 5 years, so in the mid-‘80s Nancy Kopell and I began talking about coupled oscillators. Over several trips to Boston, she and I developed many ideas, and I spread the gospel of dynamical systems to Eve Marder, who found it easier to work with physicists than mathematicians. Our little lamprey group soon expanded to include Karen Sigvardt, Thelma Williams and, of course, Bard Ermentrout, Nancy’s long time collaborator.

As they say, the rest is history. I stayed at Cornell, again with the help of Mika Salpeter, in my own lab and supported on my own grant to study locomotor control from 1980 to 1990, when University of Maryland made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a tenured position. This time, my kids were fledged and long gone, and my husband stayed behind. We had a commuting marriage for 13 years. It was difficult and has led to all kinds of important self-discovery. My husband now works in Baltimore at an HBCU, and only commutes a hour each way! I’ll take it! Our marriage is stronger than ever, and we are both happy in our work.

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2 Responses to Avis Cohen

  1. Fabiha says:

    Thanks for this blog, Prof Levy! I thought this post was very inspirational 🙂 It was great to see a female figure with so much influence in the STEM fields during those times, and how she could balance her family life with such an exciting and demanding career (and her husband’s career). I’m really enjoying reading these posts 🙂

  2. Avis Cohen says:

    And thank YOU, Fabiha! You go girl!!!


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