The Life and Times of Professor M. Wesner

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Issue 5, Volume 109

By Amanda Yagerman, Veronika Kowalski 

Seasoned educator Professor Michael F. Wesner of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada, gave a talk at Stuyvesant High School on Thursday, October 11. Over 100 students, faculty, and distinguished guests were in attendance.

Wesner, a behavioral neuroscientist and psychophysicist, began his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he focused on the reproductive and endocrine systems of primates. From there, he secured a graduate position at Washington State University. His supervisor studied some of the causes of obscured vision. As a result, Wesner switched his focus from primates to humans. He took up an interest in environmental influences on nearsightedness. A clinical professor introduced him to research involving humans, and Wesner became fascinated with the way our pupils change in size when exposed to different amounts of light.

Shortly afterward, he became connected with Naval Air Development in Philadelphia, where he deduced pilots’ blind spots when they were in the air. As a researcher for a branch of the Navy located in Philadelphia, Wesner ran experiments to determine the effects of oxygen deprivation on pilots’ peripheral vision. Applied research with the Navy, however, did not prove to be the ideal working environment for Wesner due to its rigid structure and lack of flexibility. After five years, Wesner parted ways with the Navy to pursue his own interests in basic research. Now, Wesner is delving into the sensory disconnect in those with ADHD.

Research comes with a lot of unexpected setbacks. At Lakehead University, where he currently works, one of Wesner’s students lost an entire set of human saliva samples due to a power outage. She needed to recollect the samples in order to complete her thesis. “These drawbacks can be quite frustrating,” Wesner commented. “But unfortunately, if you are relying on equipment-based operations for your research, you need to expect these type of impediments to your research program. It’s the nature of the beast.”

When things go right, though, it’s a different story. Just last year, one of Wesner’s undergraduate students received a president’s award for scholarship and was accepted into a prestigious Canadian neuroscience program. “In a nutshell, my students’ successes are my successes,” Wesner admitted. “This gives me great pleasure as an educator and as a mentor. It means I'm doing my job.”

Wesner was invited to give a talk at Stuyvesant High School by Biology teacher Charlene Chan. Chan met Wesner through a mutual contact, Dr. Florence Denmark. Dr. Denmark is an outspoken advocate for women’s and human’s rights, and she often speaks at the United Nations. She is also the Chair of Psychology at Pace University. Dr. Denmark was not at Stuyvesant on Thursday, but distinguished guests in the audience included psychologist Dr. Josephine Tan (a professor at Lakehead University whose studies focus on the effects of culture and gender on psychological health) and Dr. Glen Kowach (an award-winning chemistry professor at the City College of New York who has mentored several Stuy students in the past). For those who wish to pursue a career in neuroscience, Wesner’s advice is to keep at it. “You have to have a fascination with the subject,” he said. “Because it is work.” One of the most important components of being successful in the research field is getting to know people and having good connections.

It may come as a consolation to prospective Ph.D. students that Wesner, himself, still claims to struggle with understanding some concepts. He stresses that the field of psychology requires not only persistence but also constant collaboration between peers, especially those who specialize in different subfields. “Can the brain understand the brain?” Wesner asks. “Yes, but we need interdisciplinary appreciation.”

Wesner’s projects have the prospect of propelling us into the future. He is exploring the effects of vision on Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that surfaces predominantly during the darkest months of the year, as well as the menstrual cycle’s effect on visual hierarchical operations. Perhaps Wesner and his team will figure out the reason why light exposure heightens one’s mood, or a way that women can use their menstrual cycle to their advantage.