Spurlock Museum hosts lecture on brain chemistry

Photo by Tom Warner |  Tamer Basar, director of the University of Illinois’ Center for Advanced Study, presents Jonathan Sweedler with an appreciation plaque after his lecture at the Spurlock Musuem’s Knight Auditorium on Oct. 11.

Photo by Tom Warner |
Tamer Basar, director of the University of Illinois’ Center for Advanced Study, presents Jonathan Sweedler with an appreciation plaque after his lecture at the Spurlock Musuem’s Knight Auditorium on Oct. 11.

Anna Watson

Staff Writer

“In 2017, we still don’t know the chemicals of the brain,” said chemistry scholar Jonathan Sweedler on Tuesday evening, Oct. 11 during his lecture at Spurlock Museum’s Knight Auditorium.

The auditorium was packed full of guests to hear Sweedler, a professor and director of chemical sciences at the University of Illinois, speak about brain chemistry in his lecture “From Corals to Humans, the Common Chemicals Connecting our Brains.” His lecture is part of an annual series.

The event was from 7:30–9 p.m. with a short question-and-answer session and a reception that followed.

At 7:30 p.m., opening lines from Tamer Basar, director of the University of Illinois’ Center for Advanced Study, were heard.

Basar shared a few words about the annual series and the CAS, which was founded in 1959.

“There is nothing like it in the country,” Basar said.

Martha Gillette, a professor of biology, appeared on the podium next to provide the evening’s introduction.

“[He is] distinguished by the breadth of his analytical discoveries,” Gillette said about Sweedler. “I will tell you a secret about Jonathan: he is always looking for new discoveries. That is one of the great things about working with him.”

Sweedler used a series of slides he presented during his talk on a large screen at the front of the auditorium.

His team has been researching the brain for several years, trying to understand the brain’s chemical nature. Sweedler’s research is looking at neurochemical pathways in the brain.

“Every president selects a scientific initiative,” Sweedler said showing a slide of President Obama, “and it will be interesting to see what Trump selects in the next few years.”

Several laughs emerged throughout the audience.

During his tenure, President Barack Obama launched initiatives on mapping the brain in an ambition to cure cancer.

First, Sweedler said it was important to generate new tools that could be used to measure the brain properly.

He said his team studied the fundamentals of cells. This, he said, came with great complexity. Twenty minutes into the talk, he flipped to a slide introducing ribonucleic acids and proteins of a human cell.

Sweedler then transitioned into the topic of serotonin and dopamine. Members of the audience asked questions about his research on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and their correlation with depression. He said his work showed SSRIs changed local levels but not global levels.

He showed a slide explaining his experiments with sea snails. Sweedler said sea snails have the same neurotransmitters as humans, so discoveries in their chemistry can provide more understanding.

Throughout the talk, Sweedler pointed to members in the audience who facilitated research in his talk.

After the talk, a plaque in recognition of Sweedler’s work was presented to him by Basar.

Many people stayed for the reception, enjoying food and refreshments.

Sweedler received his bachelor of science from University of California at Davis, graduated from University of Arizona with a doctorate in chemistry, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford.

Throughout the years of his career researching in chemistry, Sweedler has received numerous awards including the Malcolm E. Pruitt Award and the American Chemical Society Award in Analytical Chemistry. He also serves as editor-in-chief of the journal Analytical Chemistry. 

The lecture was 27th in the annual series by CAS, a group of intellectuals who provide scholarships and certificates for qualifying University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students and professors.