AT HOME WITH: DR. ROBERT M. SAPOLSKY; Family Man With a Foot In the Veld
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
Published: April 19, 2001
SAN FRANCISCO— IT is probably safe to say that Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky's home is one of the few in America whose cherished family photographs prominently feature baboons.
If you crossed Jane Goodall with a borscht belt comedian, she might have written a book like ''A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons'' (Scribner), in which Dr. Sapolsky, now a professor of biology and neuroscience at Stanford University, chronicles the stresses, the heartaches, the political intrigues, the dalliances and the backbiting (literally) among the baboons he has come to know and even love.
Dr. Sapolsky lived off and on for 12 years in tents and thatched mud-and-dung huts while observing a rambunctious troop of 60 baboons in the Kenyan bush. His remodeled Tudor house filled with Mission furniture -- shared with his wife, Dr. Lisa Sapolsky, a neuropsychologist, and their two children, Benjamin and Rachel -- evinces a certain dioramic style. Rising from a crouched position on the piano bench, Dr. Sapolsky led a visitor through a savannah of toys to a fireplace mantel where, above the holiday cards, still hanging three months later, lay an intriguing assortment of skulls, tusks and bones. ''This was Aaron,'' he said, displaying a baboon skull with impressive canines.
Benjamin, 4, was named for his father's favorite baboon -- whose coiffure, consciously or unconsciously, has been loosely adopted by Dr. Sapolsky, a Birkenstocked professor and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant. The style is ''beserko,'' he writes in ''A Primate's Memoir,'' ''unkempt, with shocks of it sticking out all over his head.''
The original Benjamin is described in the book as a Woody Allenish sort of baboon who ''stumbled over his feet a lot, always sat on the stinging ants.''
Dr. Sapolsky, 43, grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a place he describes as ''a true tribal enclave.'' His career blossomed during boyhood visits to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where he spent hours fantasizing about living in the African dioramas.
By age 12, he was ''your basic misanthropic egghead,'' as he put it, and writing fan letters to primatologists (later on, at John Dewey High School in Coney Island, he taught himself Swahili). He dreamed of escaping Brooklyn.
''Bensonhurst was not the place to be a short scholarly Jewish kid with no proclivity toward athletics or gang violence,'' he explained.
The son of an architect, Dr. Sapolsky is profoundly uninterested in shelter. His father, Thomas Sapolsky, a Russian immigrant, renovated the restaurants Lüchow's and Lundy's in the 1950's and 60's.
''For an architect's son, I am remarkably unformed in my architectural tastes,'' he said. ''I suppose my ideal would be some huge, open atrium-like space with lots of tiny claustrophobic burrows leading off it.''
His study is a tiny claustrophobic burrow off the master bedroom that is accessible only by ladder. It is the Homo sapiens equivalent of a hidden den in the African bush, a secret hole from which a wart hog might come charging at any moment.
From 1978 until 1990, when his lab at Stanford began expanding, Dr. Sapolsky spent three to four months a year in a pup tent, happily subsisting on rice, beans and canned Taiwanese mackerel. Eventually he graduated to a tent one could actually stand up in.
Family aside, he would still prefer to live in a tent, though ''you do get a certain longing for a shower and hard surfaces to sit against,'' he conceded.
In recent years he has been feeling his age when he returns to the field, his back aching from canvas chairs and hauling around 70-pound baboons limp with anesthetic in order to draw their blood.
His idea of nirvana occurred one season when he and a group of scientists from the University of Chicago followed three different baboon troops around, plunking down tents at dusk in open grasslands in the middle of nowhere, ''being as nomadic as they are,'' he said.
Baboons, for the record, do not have nests or dens but spend the night perched in trees on their callosities, built-in baboon Barcaloungers, which Dr. Sapolsky describes as ''gun-metal gray calluses on their rear ends that allow them to fall asleep sitting up on a branch without their tushes falling asleep.''
Even now, with a towering house on a desirable street in a beautiful city, he said nothing can approach being close to wild creatures in the African night, smelling them, listening to ''the most perfect sound on earth'': empty elephant stomachs, which make ''low bass rumbles like the core of the earth.''
But daily life in Kenya was not a Ralph Lauren safari shoot. In one of the Sapolskys' many photo albums, there is an early picture of the couple frantically pulling off their shirts. It was Lisa Sapolsky's second night in Africa, and it was spent warding off an infestation of red ants with pincers.
''The really charming thing is that they wait until they're three-quarters of the way up your body to bite you,'' she said. ''When one bites and you reflexively kill it, it releases a death pheromone, or smell, that causes all the others to start biting.''
On the piano next to a Play-Doh Spaghetti Playshop is a beaded gourd lined with hide made by Masai friends. ''It's for carrying yummy, hot, sour milk,'' Lisa Sapolsky explained
FROM WIKIPEDIA, THE FREE ENCYCLOPEDIA
For the singer, see Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Robert Maurice Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky in 2009
1957 (age 57–58)
Brooklyn, New York
Neuroscience, neurobiology,biological anthropology,primatology
Harvard University (B.A.)
Rockefeller University (Ph.D.)
The neuroendocrinology of stress and aging (1984)
Other academic advisors
Robert Maurice Sapolsky (born 1957) is an American neuroendocrinologist, professor of biology, neuroscience, and neurosurgeryat Stanford University, researcher and author. He is currently a Professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences and, by courtesy, Neurosurgery, at Stanford University. In addition, he is a Research Associate at the National Museums of Kenya.
Early life and education
Sapolsky was born in Brooklyn, New York to immigrants from the Soviet Union. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew and spent his time reading about and imagining living with silverback gorillas. By age 12, he was writing fan letters to primatologists. He attended John Dewey High School and, by that time, he was reading textbooks on the subject and teaching himself Swahili. Sapolsky describes himself as an atheist.
He stated in his acceptance speech for the Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2003, "I was raised in an Orthodox (Jewish) household, and I was raised devoutly religious up until around age 13 or so. In my adolescent years, one of the defining actions in my life was breaking away from all religious belief whatsoever."
In 1978, Sapolsky received his B.A. in biological anthropology summa cum laude from Harvard University. He then went to Kenya to study the social behaviors of baboons in the wild; after which he returned to New York; studying at Rockefeller University, where he received his Ph.D. in Neuroendocrinology working in the lab of Bruce McEwen, a world-renowned endocrinologist.
Following Sapolsky's initial year-and-a-half field study in Africa, he returned every summer for another twenty-five years to observe the same group of baboons, from the late 70s to the early 90s. He spent 8 to 10 hours a day for approximately four months each year recording the behaviors of these primates.
Sapolsky is currently the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor at Stanford University, holding joint appointments in several departments, including Biological Sciences, Neurology & Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery.
A neuroendocrinologist, he has focused his research on issues of stress and neuronal degeneration, as well as on the possibilities of gene therapy strategies for protecting susceptible neurons from disease. Currently, he is working on gene transfer techniques to strengthen neurons against the disabling effects of glucocorticoids. Each year Sapolsky spends time in Kenya studying a population of wild baboons in order to identify the sources of stress in their environment, and the relationship between personality and patterns of stress-related disease in these animals. More specifically, Sapolsky studies the cortisol levels between the alpha male and female and the subordinates to determine stress level. An early but still relevant example of his studies of olive baboons is to be found in his 1990 Scientific American article, "Stress in the Wild". He has also written about neurological impairment and the insanity defense within the American legal system.
Sapolsky's work has been featured widely in the press, most notably in the National Geographic special Stress:Portrait of a Killer, several articles in The New York Times,Wired Magazine and the Stanford University Magazine. He has also written a number of popular science articles about his work (listed below).
Sapolsky has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship genius grant in 1987, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and theKlingenstein Fellowship in Neuroscience. He was also awarded the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award and the Young Investigator of the Year Awards from the Society for Neuroscience, the International Society for Psychoneuro-Endocrinology, and the Biological Psychiatry Society.
In 2007 he received the John P. McGovern Award for Behavioral Science, awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 2008 he received Wonderfest's Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization. In February 2010 Sapolsky was named to the Freedom From Religion Foundation's Honorary Board of distinguished achievers, following the earlier Emperor Has No Clothes Award for year 2002.
Walter Bradford Cannon
Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death (MIT Press, 1992) ISBN 0-262-19320-5
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (1994, Holt Paperbacks/Owl 3rd Rep. Ed. 2004) ISBN 0-8050-7369-8
The Trouble with Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament (Scribner, 1997) ISBN 0-684-83891-5
Junk Food Monkeys (Headline Publishing, 1997) ISBN 978-0-7472-7676-0 (UK edition of The Trouble with Testosterone)
A Primate's Memoir (Touchstone Books, 2002) ISBN 0-7432-0247-3
Monkeyluv : And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals (Scribner, 2005) ISBN 0-7432-6015-5