Skip to main content

Alexander Huk '96

Huk is an assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas-Austin and a neuroscientist who studies how signals in the brain give rise to perceptual experiences and intelligent behavior. A CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation and a grant from the National Institute of Health fund his research.
I have no reflections on my time as an honors student at Swarthmore. I think that's the point of the program. You can spend long nights polishing your horn-rimmed glasses while pontificating about the virtues of immersion in your studies. Or you can be too immersed to dabble in such metacognitive indulgences. I prefer the latter. 

In retrospect, my honors experience as a psychology major did help me acknowledge that you go to school not to go to school but to interact more effectively in the world. For me, that amounted to developing a passionate interest in understanding the mind and the brain. This is a pursuit I have continued to this day, and the multiple steps of training that led me from honors student to professor of neurobiology and psychology have felt more or less seamless. Despite many wonderful experiences at other fancy institutions since my Swarthmore days, I still look back at the basic honors-induced insight - that the world is populated not by exams, but by ideas to be had and work to be done - with the most fondness. 

Coming back to Swarthmore as an honors examiner is a different experience altogether. Even a nuts-and-bolts type like myself grows misty-eyed with revisionist nostalgia for the institution and overcome with fatherly fondness for the Swarthmoreans I get to grill. Soft-focus reminiscence aside, I've had one striking experience: These examinees are not good students; they are not students at all. They are great - young, but great - scientists. I quickly find myself departing from my examination script and just talking science with them. The better the exam goes, the more nonplussed the examinee appears - was that really "The Exam" that's been brewing these last two years? Maybe they were expecting a Cambridge accent and a powdered wig. I figure doing science doesn't usually involve much pomp or circumstance, so having a real discussion is the point. 

During these discussions, I admit to sometimes wondering whether I was nearly so impressive when I was an examinee, but I am quickly distracted to less neurotic matters: Was the campus always so pretty? Are they spoiling the new generation with that "frou-frou" coffee bar? And so begins the ascent to old age... I'll assume it's okay so long as I can still trudge up that steep stairway in Papazian Hall for another go at it.