Measuring the legacy of a scientist with a 38-year career can take many forms—tallies of awards, peer-reviewed publications or citations of papers. But to grasp his impact as a leader, colleague and mentor, one need look no further than his students.
On July 12, students and colleagues of Benjamin S. Bunney, M.D., the Charles B.G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry and professor of pharmacology and neurobiology, showed that Bunney’s legacy will live on at universities around the world long after his retirement from Yale this year.
Bunney, known to colleagues as Steve, has spent 40 years at Yale, the past 20 as chair of psychiatry. One of the world’s leading authorities on the neurotransmitter dopamine, he has made fundamental contributions to the study of the regulation of dopamine neuronal systems and the effects of antipsychotic drugs on the brain. The July symposium in Bunney’s honor brought together students and colleagues who carry on the themes of his research.
“You can’t mention the dopamine system without mentioning his seminal work,” said Tony Grace, Ph.D., the first graduate student to work in Bunney’s lab and now a professor of neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Bunney’s pioneering experiments, first carried out in the 1970s under the mentorship of George K. Aghajanian, M.D. ’58, FW ’63, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry, recorded the extracellular activity of dopamine neurons in the brain for the first time. Bunney’s laboratory then went on to identify them and characterize both their extra- and intracellular functioning. Disruptions of the dopamine system have been linked to schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and drug abuse. Much of Bunney’s career was spent probing the dopamine-schizophrenia link; and his work, combined with the contributions of others, helped lead to a new generation of antipsychotic drugs.
Paul Greengard, Ph.D., the Vincent Astor Professor at Rockefeller University, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his dopamine research, a former professor of pharmacology and psychiatry at Yale and early collaborator with Bunney, led off the day with a discussion of his work. Greengard has shown that dopamine and other neurotransmitters can activate a key protein known as DARPP-32, which in turn influences the functioning of nerve cells.
At the end of the day, Bunney spoke modestly of his own career, calling every symposium speaker “a pioneer in their own area.”
“I’m going to miss being a scientist and I’m going to miss being at Yale enormously,” said Bunney. The audience responded with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. “You can never repay your own mentors enough,” Bunney said, “but you can pass along what you’ve learned to the next generation.”