Susan Barry

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 09:15

Susan Barry
Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Susan Barry, professor of biology, received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and her M.A. and doctorate from Princeton. From 1985 to 1992, after completing three years of postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan and the Miami School of Medicine, she was assistant professor at the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Michigan Medical School.

When Sue arrived at Mount Holyoke in 1992 she set up a neurobiology lab rich with equipment to measure the electrical impulses that flow from nerve cell to nerve cell. Microscopes, oscilloscopes, racks of electronic cables, shelves of interesting chemicals to change how ions get through cell membranes, and a machine to pull tiny glass tubes into the finest of needles were all used to explore neuronal communication in organisms ranging from sea slugs to single-celled paramecia, to squid to crayfish to the Colorado potato beetle to frogs to rats and yes, even to humans. Every summer she moved her lab to Woods Hole to collaborate with scientists from around the world, and she soon found herself overseeing the research of dozens of young neurobiologists as the director of the Grass Fellows program.

Sue published around 20 papers and a book chapter in the years from 1982 to 2000. But then an event occurred that entirely shifted her focus to a new area of research, that of binocular vision and, most recently, neuroplasticity. That circumstance, gaining three-dimensional vision through therapeutic lenses and training while she was in her 40s, was not supposed to be possible but as Sue proved to herself and to the world of skeptical ophthalmologists, it indeed is. Oliver Sacks became so intrigued by her story that he wrote it up for the New Yorker, giving her the moniker “Stereo Sue.” The result of her experience and subsequent research led to Sue’s book, Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist’s Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions. Described as “a magical book, at once poetic and scientific... ” it was ranked as the best science and technical book in 2009 by the Library Journal and has already been translated into Italian, Japanese, Korean, Danish, and German. The excitement the book generated is exemplified by the number of talks that Sue has been asked to give on stereoscopic vision—over 50 so far—and by the hundreds who contacted her and have now also learned to see in three dimensions.

Most recently her paper on the work of Frederick Brock, a pioneer in the therapeutic retraining of strabismus—the inability of one eye to attain binocular vision with the other because of imbalance of the muscles of the eyeball—was selected as the best published in the Journal of Behavioral Optometry in 2011.

Sue is a fine teacher as well as a dynamic scientist. Listed among the 300 outstanding college teachers in the U.S. (according to the Princeton Review), she has encouraged many students to find their way past limits and constraints. Sue is typically described by her students as contagiously “passionate and fabulous.” One student wrote, “She teaches how one day I hope to teach.” Her classroom is not walled into a discipline; she has collaborated with mathematicians in a class on Fourier analysis and held an advanced seminar in the neurophysiology of art and music. For her family, her students, her colleagues, and her readers around the world, she combines creativity, insight, breadth, kindness, and modesty. For this, we need something that goes beyond three dimensions—quintessence, perhaps, would be a start, and so we grant her the 2013 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.