Reflections - Scott Sokol

My first meeting with Art

I was an undergraduate at Brandeis from September 1980 till May of 1984.  I worked in Art’s lab most of that time, starting in my sophomore year.  Those days were significant times of change for Art (if I can be so bold as to assume so on his behalf), and certainly for me.  The year before we met, Art spent his sabbatical in England with his family.  At the end of that time, he returned to Brandeis in a somewhat different marital state.  More germane to my story though, Art at the time had only one graduate student in his lab about to complete her dissertation and no other research assistant.  He was about to embark on a new research project in psycholinguistics, examining the relationship of prosody to online sentence processing.  He needed a colleague who could help him with the syntactic analysis required for his hypothesis testing, and so he approached Dr. Jane Grimshaw in the Linguistics department.  Jane was busy embarking on her own research and so declined the collaboration.  As a consolation prize, she offered up a promising undergraduate linguistics major for Art’s consideration (yours truly). 

Art called and asked to meet with me.  I remember that meeting really clearly.  We met in the outside area of Usdan, behind the Boulevard.  I was understandably very nervous.  We sat down, and I started to tell him how excited/honored I was to be considered for the project.  “Dr. Wingfield,” I stuttered…  “Call me Art,” he replied.  “If we’re going to be colleagues, you should call me Art.”  I was a bit nonplussed at that as you can imagine, but it was classic Art, and so characteristic of his warmth and openness to me during all the years we worked together.

We began our work, and Art’s basement lab became my second home (quite literally).  I would of course conduct research there, but also often ate there, studied there, occasionally partied there (some great drunken darts games come to mind), and it was there as well that I developed my love affair with coffee and with Sarah Vaughan (whom Art turned me on to originally).  On the matter of coffee, this was of course pre-Starbucks, and it was hard to get a decent cup locally.  Art had a one-cup drip, which he would use to make us coffee many times a day.  It always amused me (given especially that he was the author of the classic, The Psychology of Human Memory text) that it took him almost three years to remember how I liked my coffee, but I forgave him those lapses because there were so many unexpected gains.   During our years together, I became not only a part of his lab, but a part of his life, a gift that I appreciated then as much as I do now. 

Post-Doc at 17

As I mentioned, Art had one doctoral student who was finishing her PhD at the time I entered the lab.  No one in the psychology department knew me yet because I didn’t start studying psychology (which ultimately became my graduation major) until my first intro class with Art.  So in typical Art fashion, he went around telling people that I was his post-doc.  Mind you, I started Brandeis at 16, so at the time I wasn’t yet legal in any state.  I did look a bit older; I had started growing a beard for that reason, which maybe added a few years to the perception, but still I didn’t imagine anyone took the post-doc moniker as anything other than a joke.  I found out soon enough though that that there were several graduate students of other faculty members who did in fact think I was Art’s post-doc. 

This was again so classic Art.  His dry sense of humor was often mistaken for truth.  In a number of areas, you were never quite sure what was fact and what fiction.  I remember one time that Marcel Kinsbourne came to give a colloquium in the department.  Kinsbourne was of course well-known, and he and Art were apparently buddies.  At one point in his talk (and I don’t even remember the relevance), Marcel said something like, “for example, if I were to start speaking Hungarian, no one but Art would have any idea what I was saying.”  Art acknowledged the comment with an affirmative nod and after that, the rumor was that Art was fluent in Hungarian. 

We had fun with foreign languages in general, stemming in part from Art’s “European” ties.  Everyone assumed he was more worldly than us mere continental Americans.  One time, Art was going to present at a conference, I think it was in Eindhoven, and he wanted to be prepared for questions.  He knew I had a good friend who was Dutch, and asked me to have him translate the sentence “further research in this area is required,” in case he could work it in: “Verder onderzoek op dit gebied is noodzakelijk,” (or something like that).  Why limit the pretense of fluency to Hungarian only?  I was told the line was a great hit at the conference.

Art and Eve

Yep, I was there when the dark clouds of divorce broke open to allow in the light of new possibilities.  Art (along with pretty much everyone else doing psycholinguistics research in the 80s) was fascinated by  what the brain might tell us about cognition.  At the time, a young wunderkind by the name of Dr. Eve Marder was offering a (not-so) basic neuroscience class, which Art decided to take.  At first, Art would come back after class and tell me all about the fascinating (and challenging) content.  But talk of lobster neurons soon progressed to talk of the professor whom he described as brilliant and interesting.  I won’t presume to say much more about their budding relationship, except to reflect on how some of our initial perceptions of Art and Eve being a bit of an “odd couple“ quickly changed to a sense that they were a “super couple” fated to be together.   


My experience at Brandeis was exactly what the admissions folk always tout about the university: an opportunity for an undergraduate to be engaged in serious scholarly research under the guidance of a senior faculty member.  And yet, my experience was unique because that faculty member was Art.  As I began to plan beyond my undergraduate years, I initially thought to stay at Brandeis either to finish my masters or even to complete my PhD, but Art would have none of it.  He told me I had to leave the nest and develop my career somewhere else.  It was hard at the time to leave, but of course he was right.

My years with Art and the fact that I already had two publications to my credit before beginning graduate school opened a lot of doors for me.  I was accepted at most programs I applied to, and ultimately chose to go to Johns Hopkins.  Due again to my work with Art (at least in part), I was awarded an NSF graduate fellowship in my first year of Hopkins, and continued on to have a very successful career first as a research scientist at MGH/HMS, and then as a clinical neuropsychologist and academic.  I can’t possibly over-estimate the important that Art had in enabling and shaping my professional path.  I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude, which I hope I may have repaid in part through my own mentoring of students over the years.  His model is always in my mind.

Mazel tov Art on this great accomplishment; as we say in Hebrew (which of course you’re also fluent in), “ad meah v’esrim,” may you live and learn till you’re 120!