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Chasing Curiosity

To Russell Dawson Fernald ’63, coming to Swarthmore was like “going to the moon” — a leap from the school he attended as a child. 

A tinkerer by nature, Fernald picked electrical engineering as his major partly because it was easy for him. “But that was the last time I did things that came easily,” he says. “From then on, I’ve followed things that were interesting.”

Fernald’s nimble mind took him from studying electrical circuits to examining neuron connections to observing the social life of fish. His curiosity sent him diving in the Aegean Sea along the Turquoise Coast for shipwrecks, and then in Lake Tanganyika in Africa for the colorful African cichlid fish.

A professor of biology at Stanford, Fernald was one of the first people to study cichlids. He discovered the fish have complex social structures — dominant males control food resources. The females have it easy, but non-dominant males invent tricks to get by: They pretend to be females, enter the territory, act coy, and eat vigorously. Fooled by the act, the dominant male invites him to mate; but the sly food-thief flits away, saying “I have other things planned this afternoon,” jokes Fernald.

Fernald’s work has focused on what happens when one animal prevails over another and how that changes the brain. He spent his early years studying the visual system to understand how the fish recognize social opportunity to exploit it, and more recently, his lab studies how brain genes shape social behavior.

“It’s spectacular how much he’s learned about his system,” says Robert Sapolsky, renowned Stanford neuroscientist, who’s known Fernald for 25 years. “There’s no one in his league.”

Fernald, 76, hopes to soon retire and take his curiosity to a new phase of life. “I don’t want to die in my office putting out one more reprint,” he says, gesturing at the cabinets filled with books he’s read, the papers he’s published, his collection of frog skeletons and brain slices, and pictures of his family—his wife, their two daughters, and six grandchildren. “I want to go on and do something different.”

Perhaps, he says, he’ll use his building skills in an organization such as Habitat for Humanity, and contribute directly to people’s welfare. His road essentials, “a pair of binoculars and some curiosity” will be enough for his next adventure, wherever it takes him.