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By Barbara Black
This spring has been a season of honours for Jane Stewart. On April 5, she was given a symposium by former students. On April 11, she was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada by the Governor-General. On May 1, she was the featured speaker at the long-service reception for employees of Concordia.
At the symposium, papers were presented by 14 psychologists who spent their formative years under Stewart’s careful tutelage. Since then, they have dispersed, mainly to universities. Two hundred people came from as far away as Northern Ireland to pay tribute to her. Some of the papers had witty names and some had sentimental passages, but “they all had science,” Stewart said. She was enchanted.
The event was organized by Harriet de Wit, a 1981 PhD who is now a professor at the University of Chicago.
“Dr. Stewart is one of the most creative and respected scientists in the area of behavioral neuroscience,” de Wit wrote us by email. “Her contributions include original ideas as well as rigorous experimental research on a wide range of topics.
“In addition to her scientific and educational achievements, she is a warm, enthusiastic and engaging person who has touched the lives of all of us through her friendship and sense of humour.”
Stewart grew up in the Ottawa Valley. She had an uncle who was a psychiatrist and a cousin who was a psychologist. “I was generally interested in why people do things,” she recalled in an interview. She excelled at math and biology, which led to the hard science brand of psychology she practices today.
After her first degree from Queen’s, she crossed the Atlantic by boat to do her doctorate at the University of London. It was the 1950s, and England was in the grip of post-war austerity, but the theatre scene in London was thrilling — “a magical period.” She took in the original production of the Look Back in Anger, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Olivier in The Entertainer, Ionesco and others at the Royal Court Theatre.
After the doctorate, she settled in Montreal and married another scientist. Psychotropic drugs were just taking off, and she was on the cutting edge. Job-hunting, she persuaded pharmaceutical giant Ayerst McKenna & Harrison (now Wyeth-Ayerst) to hire her to set up a lab, and she stayed there four years.
In 1962 she was hired to teach part-time at Sir George Williams University, and in 1963 became full-time faculty. There were only two other full-time faculty members in the little psychology department. It was the baby boom, and enrolment was going through the roof. Classes in the YMCA building on Drummond St. were huge.
A psychology lab was created in a building that still stands at the northeast corner of Drummond St. and De Maisonneuve. She recalled with a smile that she was now doing research with rats — next door to a restaurant. It was initially hard to convince the administration she needed a sink at a time when it was assumed the psychologists were more in need of a couch.
If the 1960s saw galloping growth in the number of students and faculty, something remarkable happened in the 1970s to revolutionize research on the brain: technology. “For the first time, we could visualize the cells and the products they make,” Stewart said.
Computers opened the horizons for neuroscience in unimaginable ways, and the researchers scrambled to keep up, Stewart included. “One person would learn something, and teach the others,” she said. “What makes the field exciting is how much there is to learn.”
Paul Vezina, a 1988 PhD at the University of Chicago, said, “Jane is an outstanding person and scholar. She embodies many of the qualities I always look for in other academic scientists: curiosity about life, respect for its complexity, desire and ability to integrate its many facets, ability to focus on the relevant issues, profound knowledge base — and, all of this from someone who is respectful of others, humble and unassuming.”
Cecilia Flores, who earned her doctorate in 2000 and is at McGill, said, “Jane’s most important legacy is the current generation of researchers who had the good fortune to work with her.”
Judy Adamson, a colleague from Dawson College, reflecting on the symposium, added, “What impressed me most was that each in their own way, Jane's students thanked her for showing them the huge pleasure of a life devoted to intellectual discovery. What better could be said of any professor?”
Concordia’s Centre for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology was launched in 1983 by four faculty members. Now it has 13 core laboratories, 11 at Concordia, one at McGill and one at the Université de Montréal. They comprise 130 investigators, and have attracted collaboration from around the world.
The CSBN attracts major grants from the federal government. Last June it was named a research group by Quebec’s medical granting agency, FRSQ, and awarded funding of $1 million over four years, the first time a university without a faculty of medicine has been given such funding in the area of health.
A major focus of its work has always been the study of the neurobiological basis of drug abuse, (as opposed to genetic and environmental factors), but in recent years that focus has broadened to include the neural, hormonal and psychological processes around circadian rhythms, obesity and sexual dysfunction.