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Studying brain function at Columbia University
Studying brain function at Columbia University

There's a lot of Oregon still left in Joy Hirsch MS '71, who meticulously plants her Long Island country acreage with ferns and other Northwest flora to make it look like a Cascades forest.

Originally from Salem, Hirsch's career trajectory has kept her on the East Coast for more than three decades. After receiving her bachelor's degree in basic science from University of Oregon, Hirsch earned her master's at PSU before heading off to Columbia University on a full scholarship.

"My parents thought I'd be mugged in my first week. I pointed out to them that there are millions of people in New York City. How many of them don't get mugged every day?"

Harsch earned her PhD at Columbia, then was on the faculty at Yale and Cornell University medical college before being invited to start a new program in the groundbreaking field of functional imaging at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She was there for 10 years before returning to Columbia University in 2002, where she is the director of Columbia's Functional MRI Research Center.

Functional imaging is the use of MRI-magnetic resonance imaging-to map actual brain functions. MRI has been used as a structural diagnostic tool since it first came on the medical scene in 1981, and is commonly used to find tumors, bulging disks, and other structural abnormalities. Using the same equipment, Hirsch and her colleagues can see how the brain blood flow and circuitry change when the patient is given a verbal task, or is suffering from anxiety. Functional imaging makes a connection between neuroscience and psychology.

"It's given us a profoundly improved understanding about behavior problems and the brain's circuitry," she says, adding that it will lead to better drugs, more efficient behavioral therapy, and better surgical techniques.

"It's a window on the operation of the mind that we've never had before. It's an incredible gift." –John Kirkland