Oral history interview with Susan K. McConnell

  • 1990-Mar-07

Susan McConnell grew up in Crown Point, Indiana, the oldest of four children. Her father was a metallurgical engineer and her mother a nurse. Both were college graduates, as are McConnell’s three siblings. McConnell has always loved animals and interested in animal behavior; she initially wanted to become a horse trainer.

McConnell was a biology major at Harvard University, specializing in animal behavior. She found summer work at the Wisconsin Primate Center, but still questioned the mechanisms of behavior and began thinking in terms of cells. After graduation she worked for Howard Gardner at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reading and thinking about biological constraints on human potential, rather an amorphous concept, helped her define what she wanted to do. She was more interested than ever in cells, especially the neuron, and found that year off critical for formulating her work. McConnell entered Simon LeVay’s lab at Harvard, working in the visual system in mammals and moving with the lab to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. LeVay’s style allowed her opportunities to try a number of unusual experiments, some of which turned out very well, resulting in a number of publications from her graduate work. For postdoctoral work, McConnell went to Carla Shatz’s lab at Stanford University, funded by the National Eye Institute. She had a wonderful time there and finally discovered the excitement science is supposed to generate. She explains how her work differs from Shatz’s though they have similar training and interests.

McConnell accepted a Professorship at Stanford, which she loves. Her graduate school work forms the basis for her current work. She is now funded by the Pew Scholars award, a Searle Scholarship, and money from the National Eye Institute, in addition to an appointment as a Clare Booth Luce Professor. Her lab is small and composed entirely of women, though not by design. McConnell feels a need to critique her work; she wants to develop her field and to do “elegant” science, and she spends very long hours in the lab to do so.

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