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April 21, 2003
Stress expert Sapolsky to speak at Ohio University
By Joseph Hughes

"He's looking straight at you now," Dr. Robert Sapolsky writes in chapter three of A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, "act nonchalant, how the hell do you act nonchalant in front of a baboon anyway?"

Growing up in New York City, Sapolsky - who will speak at Ohio University tomorrow as part of the Frontiers in Science Lecture Series - dreamt of living in one of the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. Upon graduation from Harvard, his dreams were realized - he traveled to Kenya to study baboons' social behavior.

QuoteHis most recent book, A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, details Sapolsky's development as a field biologist. His accounting of life in the bush among humans and primates led the New York Times to write, "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."

After having spent so much time among the baboons, Katie Bacon of The Atlantic asked Sapolsky, what did they think of him?

"To the extent that they have any opinion about me, I'm clearly just a pathetically low-ranking baboon," Sapolsky told Bacon. "The way I can tell is that there's this gesture that males will give if somebody is about to beat up on them. They make a solicitive gesture with their face to some other male, trying to get him to join in a coalition, as if to say, 'Can somebody help me out here?' And what's clear over the years is that they will try to get me to join, but I am absolutely their last resort."

Sapolsky, known as "one of the best scientist-writers of our time," will speak at 8 p.m. in the Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium. Sapolsky's lecture, titled "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: Stress, Disease and Coping," is free and open to the public. Based on the book of the same name, his speech will detail stress and where stress-related diseases come from.

In the book, Sapolsky examines why zebras don't get ulcers, diabetes or other chronic diseases while their human counterparts do. He theorizes that the human body isn't designed to undergo the daily stressors we encounter; instead, we are more suited to the kinds of short-term stress seen by zebras - outrunning a lion, for instance.

There are ways, Sapolsky told Bacon, human behavior could be changed to avoid many social stressors. "There are exceptions to this, of course ... But for people with middle-class neurotic problems, these are problems that increase your risk of disease because you interpret ambiguous external events in a way that makes you feel hopeless and helpless and unconnected," Sapolsky said. "Psychological manipulations that push you in the opposite directions do wonders."

Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, is a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow and a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya.

"Robert Sapolsky is one of the best scientist-writers of our time," said Dr. Oliver Sacks, "able to deal with the weightiest topics both authoritatively and wittily, with so light a touch they become accessible to all."

The Frontiers in Science Lecture Series brings prominent scientists to Ohio University in hopes of fostering an understanding of the role of science in our lives. The program began in 1991 through a contribution by Jeanette G. Grasselli and Glenn R. Brown to the Ohio University Foundation.

Joseph Hughes is a writer for University Communications and Marketing

 

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