N. Traverse Slater
Dr. N. Traverse (Trav) Slater, professor of Physiology at Northwestern University Medical School and a member of the Institute for Neuroscience, died suddenly in the early hours of Wednesday, August 29, at his residence in Chicago's Lincoln Park. He was in apparent good health and had just spent an excellent vacation with his two children. Following his usual routine, Trav had been working past midnight on a scientific paper. He did not wake up from his sleep. News of his sudden death came as a shock to family, colleagues at Northwestern University, and numerous friends throughout the world.
Slater was born in 1954 in Valdosta, GA. He was educated in the United Kingdom, where he obtained a B.Sc. with honors from the zoology department, the University College of North Wales in 1975. True to Trav's attention to detail he had already determined that this was the UK's leading institute in marine biology, his first academic love. The subject of his predoctoral research was the neural control of buccal movements during feeding in the garden snail. At the time, the cellular neurophysiology of invertebrate movements was at the forefront of neuroscience research aiming to understand how the brain controls behavior, as shown by the pioneering studies of D. Dorstett, G. Hoyle, and D. Willows on the neuronal interactions in a marine mollusc during escape swimming. Slater's honours project, thus, represented a valid alternative to his initial desire to become a marine biologist. The project on the garden snail afforded him a very useful foray into the physiological and biochemical mechanisms of cell function with the use of extracellular and intracellular electrophysiologic recording from single neurons and muscle cells.
After a brief period of research on invertebrate neuropharmacology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Slater moved to the psychiatry department at the University of Manchester, England, where he obtained a Ph.D. in 1980. His thesis dealt with an even more advanced issue at the interface between biology and behavior, namely the effects of neuroleptic and antidepressant drugs on responses to the neurotransmitter dopamine and other monoamines in the rat cerebral cortex. This study involved the release of drugs from multibarreled micropipettes while recording neuronal activity from one barrel. The results suggested that the therapeutic actions of antidepressant drugs arise from a postsynaptic site of action, the receptors. The idea led Slater to continue pursuing this approach as a postdoctoral fellow, by studying the behavior of single ion channels using noise analysis and voltage-jump kinetics. With these methods the current flowing across the plasma membrane of nerve cells impaled with sharp microelectrodes was statistically analyzed and inferences made of the behavior of single channels. Slater would later learn on his own the newer patch-clamping technology to analyze the biophysical properties of single voltage-gated and neurotransmitter-gated gated channels. With the encouragement of his postdoctoral sponsor, Dr. David O. Carpenter of the New York State Department of Health, in Albany, N.Y., Slater studied the mechanisms of action of cholinergic antagonists in the marine mollusc Aplysia and the question of cholinergic desensitization kinetics. The stay in Carpenter's lab, an experience on which he fondly and frequently dwelled, was extremely productive and formative for Slater. There he also worked on the presence of alpha-adrenergic receptors in astrocytes (with H. Kimelberg), the role of monoamines in modulating epileptiform burst discharges in rat hippocampal slices (with H. Haas), the mechanism of action of acetylcholine in the olfactory cortex (with J.M.H. ffrench-Mullen), and the action of a presumed dopamine receptor antagonist protein isolated from viper venom (with S. Snyder).
After 4 years in Albany Slater was offered a research position in the Physiology Institute at the University of Munich, Germany, directed by Gerrit ten Bruggencate, and soon after he assumed the post of Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. With his groups in Munich and Chicago, Slater went on to pioneer studies of the cellular mechanisms of kindling in the hippocampus in the acute slice preparation, an animal model of epilepsy that allowed him to analyze the development and the expression of seizure activity in the limbic system. He demonstrated that kindling-like electrical stimuli in the hippocampal slice produced a dramatic decrease in recurrent and feedforward inhibitory transmission mediated through receptors for the amino acid GABA. He also took up again the question of the cellular mechanisms of action of dopamine on neurons in cortical slices, and analyzed mechanisms of motor learning and plasticity in animal models. Successively, stimulated by departmental interactions, he approached several linked issues related to the motor system, especially the slow synaptic potentials elicited in Purkinje cells by parallel fiber inputs, the effects of mutations of ionotropic and metabotropic glutamate receptors using genetically altered mice (with S. Tonegawa and D. Hampson), the involvement of NMDA receptors in the migration of cerebellar granule cells, the mechanisms of synaptic transmission in granule cells and unipolar brush cells, the problem of visual motion detection, the synaptic transmission in the vestibular nucleus, and the mathematical modeling of synaptic neurotransmission in the cerebellum. With renewed energy, he had recently prepared his lab to study the dynamics of intracellular calcium at both pre- and postsynaptic sites in cerebellar networks by combining calcium imaging with patch-clamp recording.
According to Prof. Barry Peterson, a neurophysiologist and colleague, "Traverse's contributions in research stemmed from two outstanding attributes. One was his dedication to obtaining an exceptionally broad base of knowledge and skills in cellular neuroscience and biophysics. The other was the 'nose' he had for problems that are likely to yield important new breakthroughs. He steadily pursued his long term goal of understanding the cellular basis of plasticity and learning but was always ready to seize the moment when an important new discovery came his way". Prof. Enrico Mugnaini, director of the neuroscience institute and close friend and collaborator, knows well that the manuscript Dr. Slater was rushing to complete the night he died deals with a recently discovered type of nerve cell of the cerebellum. These cells had captured Slater's imagination during the last several years. Slater, Mugnaini, and their collaborators were preparing to apply novel imaging techniques to study the physiology of these neurons in an in vitro system and were updating a web page with the latest information from their research laboratories. Mugnaini refers to Slater as "a stimulating and brilliant investigator with a genius level I.Q., a witty conversationalist, and one of the quickest brains I have ever seen in action". Dr. Simon Alford, a University of Illinois neurophysiologist and collaborator, comments that "Trav has always been one of the most scientifically literate people I have known. That is that he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the historical and present literatures".
Trav was extremely open to collaborative research and trained numerous graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, some of whom have entered successful academic careers. During the last few years, Trav had also became very adept at stock trading and enjoyed sharing with friends his astute observations concerning new biotechnology companies. "Had it not been for his love of the academic life-style", Mugnaini says, "he could have become the very successful scientific director of a new company at the forefront of biomedical research."
In addition to publishing 55 papers in prominent scientific journals and books, Dr. Slater served on several departmental committees entrusted to organize graduate educational and research programs. He contributed very significantly to teaching, giving lectures to medical, dental, nursing, and graduate students, and served as director of courses in the health sciences and the graduate school. He was also generally considered by the students to be among the very best of lecturers and was nominated for the Best Pre-Clinical Professor Award by the medical school Class of 2000. He made many important administrative contributions to his school and department. He was a member of the Medical Faculty Senate Council, the medical school's Research Council and Appointments, Promotion and Tenure Review Committee, and served for 2 years as chair of the Intramural Research Committee. He was an invited speaker to numerous institutions around the world and to national and international scientific events. He also contributed frequently to the editorial activities of several scientific journals, especially the Journal of Neuroscience, the Journal of Neurophysiology, Neuron, the Journal of Physiology (London), Science, and Nature.
Dr. Slater is survived by his wife Deanna S. Slater, two children from a previous marriage, Adam 15, and Simon 18, his mother Elizabeth (Washinghton DC), and two sisters, Elizabeth Nicolson (Washington D.C.), and Kay Danzico (Dunmore, PA)./