Douglas Fields

Year finished  Moss Landing: 1979

Lab while at Moss Landing: Ichthyology

Undergraduate education:  A.A. in Biology from De Anza College (Cupertino, CA) in 1973,  B.A. in Biology from UC Berekeley 1975;

Other graduate degrees: Ph.D. from  UC San Diego, 1985 (Neuroscience Department, UCSD Medical School, and Biological Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Current job position and location: Chief, Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD

Contact information:

Lab home page:

Some questions for Douglas:
Q: Why did you decide to pursue marine science/come to Moss Landing?

A: Most of biology is in the ocean. If you are interested in zoology or ecology, you will find yourself studying marine creatures. Marine organisms also make excellent experimental preparations for studies of basic questions in science, as in my interest in understanding the nervous system. This is because there is such diversity among marine organisms. Nature has provided us with a wealth of natural experiments. In my case, studies of a unique sense only found in sharks and their relatives, electroreception, has enabled me to study fundamental questions about how our sense cells operate and how the brain analyzes sensory information. Also I love the ocean and scuba diving.

Q:  What did you do your thesis on and why do you find it interesting/important?

A: My research revealed that some animals have a unique sensory ability. They can sense very weak electric fields that surround other living creatures in seawater. I studied this in sharks and a strange-looking ancient fish called a chimaera. SeeFields, R.D. (2007) The shark’s electric sense. Scientific American 297:74-81.

Q:  What did you go on to after graduation?

A: I went to Scripps Institution of Oceanography to continue studies on the nervous system of sharks and related fish. This led to wider studies in neuroscience into the cellular and molecular mechanisms of learning and memory.

Q:  What do you do now (if different from above?) Please describe your job and the highlights/challenges of your work.

Doug finds Nemo!
Doug finds Nemo!

A: I study how the brain wires up its connections according to neural activity in fetal life and in response to environmental experience. In general, how the brain remembers and learns. Long-term memory requires turning on genes to make proteins that will cement new synaptic connections together. This led me to investigate how neural impulse firing can control genes in general, and in particular genes that are necessary for forming long-term memory. See: Fields, R.D. (2005) Making memories stick. Scientific American 292 (February), 74-81.

In the course of these studies I observed that information not only passes through neurons in the brain, but also through long-neglected cells called “glia”. These cells do not fire electrical impulses, but our work (and others) has shown that they sense electrical activity in the brain and communicate among themselves using chemical signaling. In turn, glia control the transmission of information across synapses between neurons. This is an entirely new aspect of the brain that has been overlooked until now! See: Fields, R.D. (2004) The other half of the brain. Scientific American 290(4) (April) 54-61.

Q: What’s the best thing that you took away from MLML? How did you time at MLML prepare you/influence you for what you do now?

A: So many things! I learned how to perform experiments: how to conceive them, execute them resourcefully with the materials at hand, how to analyze the data, the value and pleasure of collaboration, and how to present the results of the research in scientific meetings and scientific publications. I learned statistical analysis at MLML, which has served me throughout my career as a square and level serve a carpenter. You can work without them, but it will show. I met some great people and dedicated teachers and scientists. Greg Cailliet is one of the best. MLML is a unique place with outstanding teachers and a commitment to teaching that is rare. My wife Melanie, who is a biology teacher, and I were married while I was at MLML, so nothing else I netted from the slough can compare with that!

Q: What would you do if you could do anything differently?

A: No regrets!

Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to go into marine science and/or graduate school?

What are you waiting for?

Whatever question you are studying in marine science, the information, skills, and techniques you are mastering will translate to other areas of science should you later change to a different scientific discipline.

If you study marine science and eventually change to a non-science career, you will have gained enormous practical and intellectual skills that will be valuable in many different professions. At the same time you will have a greater understanding of the natural world and of science. The world needs that.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career like yours?

A: If you love science, I can imagine no better life. Every day offers new challenges and excitement in discovering a new insight into Nature.

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