Greenough's Work, Achievements to be Celebrated

Beckman Institute faculty member William Greenough, who became a Professor in the University of Illinois Department of Psychology in 1969, is retiring from the department but his remarkable career as a researcher will continue.

William Greenough

William Greenough is leaving the role of professor behind after serving for more than 40 years as a faculty member in the University of Illinois Department of Psychology. The William Greenough Laboratory, however, will still be going strong in the research center Greenough helped bring to life, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

A celebration of Greenough’s work and achievements will be held Thursday and Friday, with former students, current colleagues and collaborators, and many others on hand for a symposium and other events to honor his achievements and contributions to the campus and science. Colleagues from Illinois and other institutions, Greenough Lab members, and campus representatives will talk about the scientific implications of his work and pay tribute to Greenough’s 41 years of service to Illinois as a professor and researcher.

Greenough first joined the University as an instructor in 1968, finishing his Ph.D. in Psychology from UCLA and becoming an assistant professor here in 1969, later becoming a full professor in 1978. He is a Swanlund Professor in the University of Illinois departments of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Cell and Developmental Biology, and has served as Director of the Center for Advanced Study at Illinois since 2000. He is currently a co-chair of the Biological Intelligence research theme at Beckman, which has served as home to the Greenough Lab since the Institute first opened its doors.

Greenough was an integral part of the birth of the Beckman Institute, chairing one of two committees formed to develop a proposal for an interdisciplinary center on campus, and later serving as one of its first two associate directors. Karl Hess headed the other committee and was the other associate director when the Institute officially opened in 1989.

“Karl and I were the cheerleaders for the Beckman Institute,” Greenough said. “Both Karl and I had gotten involved in interdisciplinary endeavors very early in our careers, and in both cases our careers had been redirected by those experiences in very important ways.”

"His vision has always been that way: let’s make the department better, let’s make the University better, let’s bring people here from a variety of circumstances. Bill’s vision has always been to grow the place, to bring more people with different ideas and different levels to come to bear."
– Neal Cohen

As a researcher, Greenough has been a leader in changing scientific thinking when it comes to nervous system development and the brain. He helped take the concept of brain plasticity from theory to experimental proof to accepted science.

“Bill started his work on this at a time when people thought basic sensory systems were pretty fixed. If it’s not pre-wired at least it’s wired early on,” said Neal Cohen, Greenough’s colleague from the Department of Psychology and the Beckman Institute and organizer of the celebratory event.

Cohen said Greenough showed through controlled experiments that – instead of the conventional thinking that the brain was a “hard-wired system” formed at a very early age – factors such as the richness of an environment continue to shape nervous system development and the brain through childhood, and even beyond. That change in perspective has paved the way for entire research lines about how exercise, task performance, and other factors can affect the physiology of the brain as new neurons and synapses are formed throughout the lifespan.

“He was one of the very first people to study that and he showed it in particularly elegant ways,” Cohen said. “There are lots of people who say ‘yeah we all thought that.’ But he actually showed it convincingly in experiment after experiment with all sorts of controls.”

Greenough has won many teaching, professional, and research honors and awards over the years, including election as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992 and as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006. One of his most recent, and perhaps one of his most treasured honors, is the FRAXA Research Foundation Dedication Award he was given in 2008 for his research involving Fragile X syndrome, the most common cause of inherited mental impairment and the most common known cause of autism.

The Greenough Lab’s work has resulted in breakthrough research that is a step toward more effective treatment of this disorder. The lab is currently looking at the feasibility of future gene therapy for Fragile X patients, seeking to find if specific forms of the Fragile X gene can be replaced in cells of the brain. That commitment to keeping the research fresh and on the leading edge continues to guide Greenough to this day. 

“Usually, in our lab, the most interesting work is the stuff that happens right now,” Greenough said. “For example, my laboratory and Jonathan Sweedler’s laboratory have been looking at the release of peptides, which are small protein-like molecules, and how that process is affected by genetic regulatory mechanisms. We find that our Fragile X knockout mice have radically altered mechanisms for delivering proteins to synapses.”

Cohen said Greenough’s work with Fragile X is the latest example of his commitment not just to science but to the broader goal of having an impact on the world beyond academia. In order to do that, Cohen said, years of laboratory research involving mammalian neurobiology were required, as well as a commitment to linking the neurobiological research to behavior.

“Bill's Fragile X research is a great example of doing research that has both obvious societal benefits and also obvious contributions to basic science,” Cohen said. “Way back when Bill first started doing this work, the overwhelming majority of work on the mechanisms of memory was being done on simple systems. But it’s really hard to tie those physiological changes to the sorts of behaviors we care about in humans.

“Bill was determined to stick to the level where you could relate the changes in the nervous system to real behavior. Bill is really unusual in that he always felt, and I think was absolutely right to do so, that he was a psychologist who knew how to use anatomical and physiological techniques to analyze interesting questions.”

Greenough’s contributions to the University of Illinois campus go far beyond his research accomplishments; they include more traditional efforts like recruiting faculty to the University, his home department, and Beckman, as well as big picture enterprises like encouraging scientists to cross academic boundaries and collaborate on research projects.

“Bill’s impact on the campus is extraordinary,” Cohen said. “He has been for a very long time one of our most highly visible faculty members in the department, helped to recruit other faculty members, and he had a vision about building the biological strength of the Psychology Department.

“His vision has always been that way: let’s make the department better, let’s make the University better, let’s bring people here from a variety of circumstances. Bill’s vision has always been to grow the place, to bring more people with different ideas and different levels to come to bear.”

That was especially true when it came to the pivotal role Greenough played in the creation of the Beckman Institute. He was involved in everything from framing the research parameters of the Institute when the concept of an interdisciplinary center was being developed to helping to determine the makeup of the research groups that first inhabited the building.

“We set out to have an interdisciplinary research center,” Greenough said. “What united the people who created the concept of the Beckman Institute was the fact that you could make much more progress in your discipline by borrowing from and using the tools of other disciplines. Most of the people involved in the Beckman Institute were headed in that direction already.”

Greenough said the Beckman Institute came along at just the right time.

“It really was an idea whose time had come,” he said. “Up until then, for most of the disciplines represented in the Beckman Institute, just keeping track of the details in your own discipline was a full-time job.

“We hit the streets at about the same time that the information explosion was occurring, at the time it became possible to search the literature, a database with millions of articles in it, and pull out a half-dozen that you wanted. Lots and lots of things simply became available to science on a scale that was not ever before experienced. So there was merit in combining forces to use the power of the machines.”

In 2009 the Beckman Institute is celebrating its 20th year as a leading center for doing interdisciplinary research. So it is fitting that in the 20th Anniversary Year, one of the founding fathers of an institute dedicated to working across disciplines on campus is honored as well.

“He really exemplifies that,” Cohen said.