Remembering Howard Eichenbaum

I am not the type to start crying when a famous person dies. Yes, I was saddened by the passing of Michael Jackson and Robin Williams. Notwithstanding the talents of these iconic figures I was still able to go about my normal day basically undistracted by the knowledge that their souls were no longer in this world.

I learned about the passing of Howard Eichenbaum this weekend.  He was a towering figure the field of memory research, neuroscience, and cognition.

Today and yesterday, I have surprised myself with how upset I am about Howard’s passing. Frankly I am embarrassed by my sadness. Mostly because I do not pretend to have known him anywhere close to his peers such as Neil Cohen, Elizabeth Buffalo, Peter Rapp, or Rebecca Burwell, or his mentees such as Nick Robinson, Norbert Fortin, Steve Ramirez, or Joe Manns- to name just a few that come to mind. Not to mention his wife, two sons, family,  close friends, and countless colleagues. Is my sadness worthy or I am just having an emotional week? To find out I write this reflection piece.

Anyone who has studied memory knows his work has been foundational, so it is no wonder his research helped shape my entire graduate career and my dissertation work in which I studied explicit memory in monkeys. Towards the end of my PhD program, when I met him at a two-week Neurobiology of Learning & Memory workshop at Cold Spring Harbor, my group pitched a chalkboard talk to him-  I can’t remember exactly what- but I think it included optogenetics, medial entorhinal cortex and hippocampal activation/suppression and recording, and time cells. He said, “Great! Why don’t you come do that in my lab?!” I was humbled by the knowledge that he was simply expressing his genuine excitement about the experimental design and potential findings- something many know him well for. But I didn’t dismiss the opportunity to stand on the shoulder of a giant, so I later visited his lab. Our scientific interests aligned and we seemed equally invigorated about particular facets of time perception, memory awareness, and episodic memories. It was a tough call to instead pursue a PUI offer/career. Thanks to my parahippocampal structures, I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot of a supermarket near Emory University when we discussed my future on the phone- he was nothing but encouraging and kind.

Okay so I knew him, but not well. So why am I so upset? Is it the simple but cold hard fact that his loss is a true tragedy for not just neuroscientists but the whole world? That I had emailed with him less than two-weeks before? That, despite his tremendous standing in the field, he felt like an uncle I had always known when we first met? Was it a kinship felt because he was the exact same age as my father or that he lived in Wellesley and we lived in Newton? The fact that we both craved summer days in Chatham? Was it his willingness to mentor not just his own lab members, but also a meager graduate student or junior faculty member like me?

If I had been a comedian or an actor, maybe I would have felt similarly by the passing of Robin Williams. Perhaps being a memory researcher defines me more than I realize. Our memories define who we are and I have spent a lot of time thinking about and doing science on memory. Dr. Eichenbaum had a direct and limitless impact on me and my work. It is not just because his findings were so instrumental that I deeply mourn his loss or that he changed what we know about memory forever. He was generous, kind and warm. So I think my sadness is in fact grounded in his immense impact. His scientific impact and his impact as a human being.

A colleague passed the news on with the header: “Sad news that will result in a real loss of energy in memory research.” His passing came far too early and the field will not be the same without him. But I see the latter differently. If he touched me, there must be thousands of others for which he did the same and so much more. Think of his students and his student’s students and all the progress we can and will make. Think about all of the future students of memory- of psychology and neuroscience more generally, and how he will live on through their work. Think about countless individuals in years to come who will not suffer memory loss as painfully as they might have 50 years earlier because of his work. Instead of a loss of energy in memory research, let’s let Dr. Eichenbaum’s passing invigorate the field in his honor and always be humbled by his brain.

-Victoria L. Templer


One thought on “Remembering Howard Eichenbaum

  1. Absolutely, a giant in the field, and a major loss for us all. He was great, professionally and personally, a real force for good.

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