Current Issue

Oct.26, 2011

Vol. 112, No. 3

Scientist Dad

Sam Wang takes on a most perplexing topic: your child’s brain

By Ian Shapira ’00
Published in the October26, 2011, issue


Peter Murphy

Wang, 44, an Ohio native and son of Chinese immigrants, has been teaching at Princeton since 2000. He’s an academic wedded to an array of subjects such as synaptic plasticity, the ability of the connections between your brain’s neurons to change strength, appear, or vanish. But Wang also enjoys expanding his wonky material into relatable ideas for mainstream audiences. In June and September, he and Aamodt wrote two popular Times op-eds, based on research from their new book, which explained how children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be nearsighted and how delaying your child’s entry to kindergarten by a year doesn’t give him or her a leg up with academics in the long term. Three years ago, he penned a controversial USA Today article debunking the comic actress Jenny McCarthy’s argument that vaccines cause autism, a subject revisited in the new book, too.

While many professors might seem content writing for their peers with niche science-journal articles, Wang, a former college radio disc jockey who speaks with the effusiveness of an actor, likes leveraging his data-driven mind to analyze everyday issues. For the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, he launched a popular polling blog. He also has given YouTube-viewable lectures at the kind of venues that nowadays certify a person’s intellectual credibility and celebrity: He and Aamodt spoke about their first book at Google’s headquarters; he discussed willpower for a TEDx conference talk in San Francisco; and there he is on the website Big Think, a kind of YouTube for camera-ready intellectuals and professors.

When he was the chairman of Princeton’s Committee on Public Lectures from 2006 to 2010, Wang took pride in reeling in campus speakers such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the pencil-thin-mustachioed filmmaker John Waters, who first gained fame for cult films featuring transvestites like Divine. (Inside Wang’s office, his students can see a poster advertising Waters’ speech on the wall marked with a prominent note from the filmmaker: “To Sam, who made me respectable.”) But most of all, Wang is devoted to neuroscience — and to making neuroscience accessible to the average person. He views his job as a kind of public service: With the latest book, he wants to help parents cast aside the surfeit of myths about child-rearing that have cropped up over the years, including the myths of quickie IQ-boosting tricks. (For starters, playing Mozart to your baby won’t get her or him into the Ivy League.)

Instead, he and Aamodt want Welcome to Your Child’s Brain to serve as a kind of manual for parents that provides understandable and evidence-based facts about child-rearing and brain development. The basic idea: Relax. Your child’s brain “raises itself,” they say in the book, and if you furnish a loving, stable environment, most likely everything will be fine.

Other ideas in the book, however, are more provocative, such as the breastfeeding tidbit. Wang and Aamodt allow that, yes, children who have been fed exclusively on breast milk during infancy have higher intelligence on average than those who were not. But that’s not necessarily because of the breastfeeding. Parents who breastfeed tend to be richer and more educated, and they are less likely to smoke.

“Headlines reading ‘Smart Mothers Found to Have Smart Babies’ probably wouldn’t be so memorable,” they say in the book.

This kind of myth-busting makes Wang worry both that he is a sitting duck for parents who think they know better, and that others think he is a parenting oracle with all the answers to raising a Princeton-bound student.

“I don’t think I have special advice for how someone can get their kid ready to go college,” he says. (Note to readers: Wang and his wife, a doctor, read three stories to Vita each night before she goes to bed.)

“I try to push in my writing that neuroscience is relevant in everyday life, but sometimes I get questions that are very serious, and I recommend that they see a medical specialist,” he says. “One person came to see me last fall after a lecture and said that she was worried about their son on the lacrosse team, who had been checked in the head, and that his mood had changed,” Wang said. “My advice was, ‘Uh, see if he can play tennis?’”

Wang is the grandchild of two men who fought for the Chinese Nationalist Party during the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s. After the Communists won, his grandparents fled to Taiwan. His parents met in Taiwan and fell in love. In the 1960s, they immigrated separately to the United States to obtain graduate degrees in library science, and got married in Indiana. His father eventually became a librarian at the University of California, Riverside.

Wang, who has two younger siblings, was something of a prodigy. Since his parents were librarians, books surrounded him. His father recognized Wang’s taste for numbers, so he tutored him.

Before he was 8, he was solving advanced math problems. He left Riverside Poly High School without finishing his last two years and enrolled, at 15, at Caltech. Wang wanted to become a scientist, partly to fulfill a dream that his father — who had struggled with English and had to raise three kids — could not attain himself. Wang majored in physics but discovered by his senior year that he loved biology and neuroscience more. After graduating with honors in 1986, Wang immediately began a Ph.D. program in neuroscience at Stanford.

“When I was in fourth grade, someone asked me what I wanted to be, and I said, nuclear physicist. I wanted to figure out the secrets of the universe,” Wang says. “But I found out that in physics, it was taking longer and longer between discoveries. And the selfish reason is that I wanted to be in biology, where I could solve something in my lifetime.”

In the late 1980s, Wang became the news director for Stanford’s radio station KZSU: his first chance to speak and write about science for a general audience — in this case, commuters in their cars. At KZSU, he interviewed Edward Teller, the hydrogen-bomb inventor, then living in the Palo Alto area. Wang remembers asking Teller about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. The Cold War rivals had a falling out after Teller left to work on the hydrogen bomb and later testified against Oppenheimer during congressional hearings that focused on that scientist’s suspected Communist ties.

“Teller was terrifying. We talked about the Star Wars program and his relationship with it. Then I brought up Robert Oppenheimer, and he got very angry about it. He said, ‘I don’t want to talk about that. This interview is over,’” Wang recalls. “We were live! I spent a few minutes talking him down. Then he was calm.”

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1994, Wang completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University, where he studied chemical changes in the brain and signals that neurons use to drive learning. Then he landed a job in New Jersey as a postdoctoral technical staff member researching learning and memory mechanisms at Bell Labs, where the transistor and laser, among other innovations, first were developed. But Wang wanted to teach and do research. In 2000, he heard of an opening in Princeton’s molecular biology department and was hired as an assistant professor.

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