April 21, 2021

A Gift to Celebrate How We Learn and Remember

Mark Gurney (PhD ’80) has endowed a fellowship at Caltech to honor his former mentor Mark Konishi, who inspired him to explore the mechanisms of learning and memory.

Gurney characterizes his Caltech experience as warm and collegial as well as trailblazing, and no one imbued the Institute’s culture of inclusivity and innovation more than his graduate adviser, Mark Konishi, the Bing Professor of Behavioral Biology, Emeritus. As an example, Gurney points to Konishi’s tradition of inviting neuroscience seminar guest speakers to dinner in Chinatown. “He always included graduate students as well,” Gurney remembers with appreciation.

“Chinese food, at that time, was atypical cuisine for most of us,” he recounts. “Everyone at the table was allowed to pick one dish—and if there was any food left at the end of the meal, you were responsible for finishing the dish you chose.” He adds, with a laugh, “That spicy eggplant sank a lot of us!”

But, of course, the most important place where Konishi encouraged students to try something new was in the laboratory. “Mark created room for adventurous students, and I was certainly one of them,” Gurney recalls. “We were allowed to take chances.”

The Early Worm Gets the Bird

Konishi happily spent long days in the lab, providing an excellent role model of how students could shape their careers by following their curiosity. Gurney remembers a friendly competition between Konishi and one of his postdoctoral scholars about who could arrive first and begin setting up neurophysiology equipment for their owl studies. Konishi, who usually arrived first, playfully reminded his students, “The early worm gets the bird.”

Concurrent with his quest to discover how the owl’s brain localizes sounds, Konishi sought to understand the neural pathways in the brains of songbirds that enabled them to learn and produce song. His songbird research yielded groundbreaking insights into motor learning and language acquisition.

Complementing what he learned from Konishi, Gurney took an interest in the work of Seymour Benzer, Caltech’s James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Emeritus. Benzer’s team was developing behavioral assays in Drosophila that allowed them to study the genetics of behavior. “One of the key findings at the time,” Gurney explains, “was a series of mutations that affected learning and memory.”

 

 

Mark Konishi (center), graduate student Mark Gurney (far left), and other members and friends of the Konishi lab in the 1970s

A Career Takes Flight

 

Konishi’s and Benzer’s foundational inquiries shaped Gurney’s career. At the crossroads of neuroethology, molecular biology, and behavioral genetics, Gurney began his lifelong quest to find treatments for impaired brain function. “The question that has fascinated me through the arc of my career,” he shares, “is: ‘How do we learn and remember and store and retrieve memories?’”

After he graduated from Caltech, Gurney joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, and then moved to Northwestern University where he developed a transgenic mouse model for ALS. This was a breakthrough for translating genetic findings into effective drug therapies.

Eventually, Gurney left academia to follow his curiosity down a new path. He earned an MBA at Northwestern University and pursued a second career in industry. In 2011, he founded Tetra Therapeutics, a company that develops drugs to treat memory loss and cognitive impairment. One emphasis is a pursuit that builds on Benzer’s pioneering investigations: Tetra aims to improve cognition in persons with intellectual disabilities, such as those associated with Fragile X syndrome, with drugs that inhibit the human counterpart of the Drosophila dunce enzyme.

A Tribute

In 2013, Gurney returned to Caltech for a neuroscience symposium to celebrate Konishi’s 80th birthday. While reminiscing with Konishi at this event, Gurney got the first spark of an idea to honor his adviser.

When he learned of Konishi’s passing in 2020, Gurney decided to bring that idea to fruition. He endowed the Mark Konishi Fellowship in Neuroscience, and his gift was amplified by the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match. Raising funds for fellowships is a cornerstone of Break Through: The Caltech Campaign because these funds ensure that graduate students can focus fully on their studies and future careers instead of their finances. Gurney also hopes to offer personal mentorship and guidance to Konishi Fellows as they enter the workforce.

“Foremost, I wanted to establish a fellowship fund to create opportunities for other students to have the amazing learning experience I had at Caltech,” Gurney says. “That education launched my career. But I also wanted to honor my mentor. He was an important person in the field of neuroethology—and he was an important person to me.”

 

If you would like to join friends, former students, and colleagues whose lives Konishi touched and make a gift to the Mark Konishi Fellowship in Neuroscience, please contact Elizabeth Cornejo at elizabeth.cornejo@caltech.edu. For more general information about how you can support graduate education at Caltech, email give@caltech.edu or call (626) 395-4863.

For the Love of Birds—and Caltech

Mark Konishi

Masakazu (Mark) Konishi, the Bing Professor of Behavioral Biology, Emeritus, passed away on July 23, 2020, at the age of 87. Konishi joined the Caltech faculty as a professor of biology in 1975 and became the Bing Professor of Behavioral Biology in 1980. His findings opened up new areas of study and had far-reaching impact across neuroscience.

Among many other contributions, Konishi demonstrated that owls create auditory maps to localize their prey. Additionally, his research on the neural basis of learning and remembering songs in songbirds led to the use of birds as models for understanding how other animals acquire language and motor skills.

During nearly four decades on the Caltech faculty (he retired in 2013), Konishi advised dozens of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. He always encouraged his students to try things that had never been done before. By naming Caltech the beneficiary of his retirement accounts, Konishi continues to inspire scholars to pursue the unknown.