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Comparative Psychologist Studies Honeybees
Charles Abramson grew up in an environment that was ripe for inspiring a career in the field of comparative psychology. Raised near 78th and Broadway in New York City, his neighborhood was a classic melting pot of families from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic while he was born to an immigrant Italian-Catholic mother and Jewish father. Comparing similarities and differences became an innate ability he turned into an award-winning career, which has taken him all over the globe and attracted millions of dollars in grant money.
And yet, he does have his detractors. A student-produced bumper sticker reads, “I’d rather have my eyes poked out than take a class from Dr. Abramson.” He proudly displays the sticker outside his office in North Murray Hall, and it speaks to the professor’s “sink-or-swim” approach.
“I will let anyone into my laboratory,” Abramson says. “I don’t care about grades or reference letters, but if you fail — and some do — you can never say you weren’t given a chance.”
Like a successful football coach, Abramson sets high expectations and those who are up to the task find the approach incredibly rewarding. Third-year graduate student Chris Dinges explains the payoff.
“He sets the bar high enough that you can distinguish yourself,” Dinges says. “With a behaviorist view on education, he reasons you have to have failures to make the successes mean something.”
Dinges is heavily involved in one of Abramson’s latest triumphs as a collaborator on a $4 million National Science Foundation — Partnerships in International Education grant. Dinges’ and Abramson’s study delves into the molecular mechanisms of decision-making in honeybees. They are working with Dr. Tugrul Giray (University of Puerto Rico) and Dr. Meral Kence (Middle East Technical University) as well as the principal investigator on the grant, Dr. Mark Miller (University of Puerto Rico).
The five-year grant “Neural Mechanisms of Reward and Decision” will support a wide variety of projects.
“The idea is to try to get a handle on the molecular mechanisms of behavior,” Abramson says. “Honeybees have a social structure and a language. They have caste-dependent changes in learning so younger bees do not do the same thing as when they get older; they change.”
Through the research provided by the grant, the consortium hopes to increase the understanding of decision-making, which could lead to more effective, adaptive strategies for solving problems.
This international collaboration is typical of Abramson’s philosophy and broad interests, which have taken him across the globe to countries as diverse as Turkey, Greece, Italy, Japan, Russia, Slovenia, Venezuela, and Brazil, where he met his wife, Zeyna. He has come a long way, both literally and figuratively, from his modest upbringing in New York.
“No one from my childhood would have thought I would do this,” Abramson says. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
With the help of nearly $7 million dollars in career grant money, Abramson has collected a treasure trove of research in comparative psychology, creating groundbreaking work on bees, an online History of Psychology museum and an exhaustive biography about early 20th-century African-American psychologist Charles Henry Turner. He also co-authored a Slovenian phrase book, which was later translated into Italian and German. It is not uncommon for him to attend national conferences and hear exchanges where one attendee may say, “Abramson — he’s the guy who works with bees!” and another counters, “No, he’s the history guy!” before they realize they’re talking about the same person.
Growing up without much money in a nontraditional family, Abramson developed a work ethic and unusual level of responsibility.
“I don’t remember a time when my mother and father were ever together,” he says.
After battling through various military and public schools, he took a job as a security guard at the World Trade Center, so he could put away enough money to attend the private Croydon Hall Academy. When he could not afford 11th grade, he went back to being a security guard then returned to school and graduated (though he never did take 11th grade courses). The ride may have been bumpy, but Abramson’s focus was always on the future.
“Everybody gets down, but the idea is to push forward and don’t go back,” he says. “Always go forward.”
After graduation, Abramson was accepted into NYU, Seton Hall and Boston University, which he ultimately attended because “it was the farthest away from New York.” It was at BU where he approached Dr. Henry Marcucella, who gave an unproven Abramson the one thing he needed — a chance. Marcucella essentially gave Abramson the option to sink or swim, and this had a profound influence on his own teaching philosophy.
“I don’t really believe in good professors; it’s only good students,” he says. “I remember being told you can only meet someone halfway, but I realized you can only meet them 49 percent because the student has to give that 1 percent to build on.”
The approach clearly worked for Abramson, who earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1978. He remained at BU to secure a master’s degree in experimental psychology and a doctorate in physiological psychology (while concurrently conducting graduate work at the University of Hawaii). In 1986, he went to work at the SUNY Health Science Center in Brooklyn, New York, and then landed at Oklahoma State University in 1993.
OSU offered Abramson the opportunity to whet his interdisciplinary whistle. Not only could he pursue his projects in comparative psychology, which he notes was “a dying field,” but he could flex his mental muscles in other areas such as zoology and entomology.
Awards and recognition swiftly followed his move to Stillwater. He is a four-time OSU Department of Psychology Teacher of the Year winner and four-time Oklahoma Psychological Society Outstanding Psychology Teacher. He has also collected all three Regents awards (Distinguished Teaching Award,1997; Distinguished Professor, 2007; Distinguished Research Award, 2008). In 2014, he was appointed to the Lawrence L. Boger Endowed Professorship in the School of International Studies at OSU.
Piles of other awards and achievements decorate his résumé, but the one feat for which he is most proud primarily benefits OSU students. In 2013, Abramson and his colleagues, headed by Dr. Perry Gethner, realized a hard-earned dream of bringing a Phi Beta Kappa honor society chapter to OSU. Phi Beta Kappa recognizes students who achieve a 3.7 or higher GPA, combined with “a broadly based liberal education” and members must be elected. Abramson serves as the chapter historian and is conducting oral histories in conjunction with Dr. Tanya Finchum of the OSU Edmon Low Library. Abramson was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at BU and his mother was so proud she insisted on being buried with his Phi Beta Kappa key.
“She always valued education,” he says.
And Abramson loves nothing more than to offer opportunities to students who feel the same calling. Take Ana Chicas-Mosier, for example. A Stillwater native who excelled at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics in Oklahoma City, Chicas-Mosier approached Abramson when she was still in high school. True to his ethic, he gave her a chance and she ran with it.
“He’s willing to give anyone a shot, even a random high-schooler who emails him out of the blue,” she says.
Chicas-Mosier graduated from OSU with bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology and now aims to secure a doctorate in integrative biology in four years. With Abramson as her adviser, she believes she is up to the task.
“He holds everyone to his standard, including himself,” she explains. “It makes you want to strive to be better.”
With three research publications under her belt already, Chicas-Mosier is off to a promising start. Her first taste of fieldwork came as a freshman when Abramson included her with a group that traveled to Turkey to study honeybees. She instantly fell in love with the work, and her research now centers on using bees to study a potential link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease. The National Science Foundation is supporting her research with a Graduate Research Fellowship, one of 2,000 awards presented from a pool of 17,000 applicants.
Dinges has also thrived under Abramson. The third-year graduate student needed just one day of class to realize he had discovered an unusually inspiring professor. It began with Abramson asking the class a seemingly simple question: “How do you define comparative psychology?”
“I started stumbling through an answer and he just said, ‘If you don’t know, say you don’t know.’ I was inspired from his class from then on because it was a relief to hear that honesty,” Dinges says.
Though Abramson has built a 23-year career at OSU, his New York accent remains and sometimes that honesty is interpreted as bluntness. When it comes to discussing the field of comparative psychology, Abramson is not one to mince words.
“Everyone is not the same, and everyone is not equal, and that’s why I think comparative psychology is more important now than it ever has been before,” he says.
That is where his international interests, entomological experiments and historical curiosities collide. While Abramson has seen other disciplines within psychology overtake the comparative field in popularity, he believes the application of some of that research is lagging behind.
“It’s the skill in designing behavioral experiments that I think people are losing,” he says, who keeps beehives in his backyard at home.
Abramson has proven his own skill in experimental design including a study of Africanized honeybees using alcohol. Through his research, he created a model that helped study alcoholism in humans. Later, he imagined those results into a children’s book he wrote, Betty the Boozing Bee.
The NSF-PIRE grant digs even deeper, looking at how behavior might be manipulated at the molecular level. Bees make for particularly good subjects because they have similar neural systems to humans but in an extremely simplified version, Abramson explains. Additionally, they learn well, have a social structure, and there may be thousands of nearly identical siblings within a hive.
Dinges spends much of his time in Abramson’s lab in Life Sciences West dissecting the brains of bees and wasps. He knew from the moment he learned the word “entomologist” when he was 8 years old what he wanted to do when he grew up. Through Abramson’s comparative psychology class, he found the perfect way to realize that dream.
“Loving psychology, loving insects, it could not have been a better fit,” he says. “I get to be a ‘bee psychologist’ now.”
Working in one of the few labs in the country to actively pursue research in comparative psychology, Dinges shares Abramson’s zeal for the subject and hopes a renaissance in the field is approaching.
“What I want to continue with Dr. Abramson’s legacy, as one of his students, is to bring back comparative psychology,” Dinges says.
While the field may have been quiet for the last 20 or 30 years, Abramson’s recent success in obtaining grant money is encouraging. Not only has he netted the NSF-PIRE grant, and earned an extension on a National Science Foundation – Research Experience for Undergraduates grant with the University of Central Oklahoma’s Dr. John Barthell, but he is also collaborating on an NSF National Robotics Initiative grant with OSU’s Dr. Girish Chowdhary and Dr. Christopher Crick and Texas A&M’s Dr. Prabhakar Pagilla to develop better interactions between humans and robotic trainers.
In 2015, Abramson was on the move with research taking him to Brazil, Russia, Chile and Columbia. Abramson traveled to Brazil to lay the groundwork for a course on International Environmental Sociology, which will be offered by the Sociology Department for two months during the summer of 2016. Professors Beth Caniglia, Duane Gill and Tammy Mix will teach the course.
“It will be the first OSU Arts and Sciences travel course to be offered in Brazil and continues the relationship between OSU and the Federal Institute of Paraiba (IFPB),” Abramson says. “As part of the agreement, IFPB sent two teams to the Mercury Robotics Competition hosted by Dr. Carl Latino and the electrical engineering department. One of the teams earned second place honors and all the Brazilian students enjoyed touring OSU and meeting fellow students.”
In March 2015, Abramson was off to Moscow with his internationalbased spring break class “Explorations in the History of Psychology,” hosted by Moscow State University of Design and Technology. During the trip, students had the opportunity to explore universities, interact with Russian psychology students and faculty, and visit sites of cultural and historical significance.
The months of April and May in 2015 were spent in Chile conducting research on honeybees and teaching courses on comparative psychology and scientific writing, along with presenting an all-day workshop on honeybee learning. This visit was co-hosted by the Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso (UCV) and Centro CERES.
“During this visit I was able to establish research collaborations with commercial apiaries containing several thousand hives,” Abramson says. “Centro CERES, located in Quillota, Chile, is an agricultural research facility loosely affiliated with UCV. OSU has had a longstanding agreement with UCV and I hope it can be expanded to include Centro CERES. Quillota is known for its rich history and, among its industries, is one of the world’s largest avocado producing facilities.”
July and part of August were spent in Pandi, Colombia, researching stingless bees and teaching a course in Bogota on comparative research methods. This visit was co-sponsored by the Academia Colombiana de Ciencias and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia where he began discussions about exchange agreements.
During the spring 2016 semester, Abramson took a group of students to Granada, Spain, to explore the Islamic contributions to science and psychology. Dr. David Henneberry, associate vice president of international studies and outreach, says collaboration with universities internationally is a great benefit to OSU.
“With the work Dr. Abramson is doing in these countries it will enhance opportunities for further research, therefore giving students opportunities for cultural experiences and increasing awareness of what types of studies we are doing at Oklahoma State University,” Henneberry says.
Abramson credits students like Chicas-Mosier and Dinges with rebuilding the reputation of comparative psychology by bringing interactive tools into the community. The students often visit high schools and have hosted a booth at the EPSCoR Women in Science Conference for the last several years. Popular attractions at the booth include letting people hold and feed wasps and demonstrating the MindFlex machine, which allows people to raise and lower a ball with their mind.
Quick to return the credit Abramson gives them, Chicas-Mosier points out his enthusiasm — not only for the work but for bringing in new people — is inspiring.
“When you talk to someone and they’re really excited about their work, it’s contagious,” she says.
Abramson keeps fighting the good fight for comparative psychology and delights in training the next generation to keep going forward.
“We have to keep expanding,” Dinges says. “It’s something I really believe in.”
Abramson has built an enviable career around his own belief and applied creativity in his subject. From Stillwater to Turkey, Puerto Rico to Brazil, the boy from 78th and Broadway has adapted, collaborated and, in his own poke-your-eyes-out style, is inspiring the next generation of comparative psychologists.
“I can’t imagine another kind of psychology,” Abramson says. “I am lucky to do what I do, and I’m glad to do it at OSU."
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Uploaded on May 1, 2016