His graduate students simply call him Dan. Not Dr. Tranel. Not Professor Tranel.
This isn’t a lack of respect for their mentor, one of the top neuroscientists in his field. They just see him as a normal guy who happens to have a 100-yard football field, complete with goal posts at each end, on his farm in southern Johnson County. “They call me on a first-name basis, but they respect me,” Tranel says. “I’m demanding and ask them for a high level of productivity, and I don’t tolerate mediocrity and laziness.”
Tranel directs The University of Iowa neuroscience graduate program. His mission is to help his students succeed, but not without fun along the way. “Dan goes into everything wanting his grad students to graduate,” says Justin Feinstein, a doctoral candidate in clinical neuropsychology. “He wants to see us become successful, and he’s willing to put in a lot of time and energy to make sure that happens.”
The Iowa Board of Regents honored Tranel’s commitment to students last October, presenting him with a 2009 Regents Award for Faculty Excellence. “A good mentor is passionate about what they’re doing. That’s a starting point,” says Tranel, a professor of neurology in the Carver College of Medicine and professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“Being available is critical,” he adds. “I can’t underscore that enough. A lot of people at my level spend most of their time on the road giving talks all over the globe, but you’re not available if you’re not around.” On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7:30 a.m., Tranel convenes a meeting of graduate students, neuropsychologists, neurologists, and postdoctoral scholars to discuss their research. During these meetings, students practice their “elevator” speeches—one-minute presentations of their research in plain language. “Students need the ability to talk about their science in lay terms, to make it transparent to the average intelligent person, and convey why it’s important,” Tranel says. “Scientists depend heavily on grant money to fund our research. In all cases, it requires you to indicate to people pulling the purse strings why they should pay for this.”
Tranel is an editor of several neuropsychology journals, a frequently invited speaker, and the author of several hundred publications and reviews. But his students and patients come first. “He’s always quick to respond to any question. He’s remarkably engaged,’’ neuroscience graduate student Erik Asp says. “He’s interested in what ideas you might have. If you come up with a great idea and have good reasoning behind it, he’s like, ‘Let’s go ahead and go for it.’”
Last August, Tranel celebrated his 30th anniversary at Iowa. Before joining the faculty, he earned a clinical psychology master’s degree in 1981, a Ph.D. in 1982, a clinical neuropsychology residency in 1983, and a behavioral neurology fellowship in 1984.
What’s kept this Montana native here for three decades? Tranel cites Iowa’s top-notch neuroscience program and facilities, access to a unique patient population, and a stellar psychology department. Then there’s his lifestyle. “I live on a farm, and that replicates some of my experiences growing up in Montana,” Tranel said. “I’m two stop lights and 15 minutes between home and work, and that’s not something you find everywhere.”
When he’s not playing flag football, ice hockey, or basketball on the farm with his students, he is riding one of his four horses. On a horse he’s reminded of his younger days in southeastern Montana, where the nearest major hospital and movie theatre were 120 miles away. Isolation from big city life forced Tranel to be a self-starter and helped him develop survival skills. He attended high school on a reservation with members of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, one of a handful of white kids at the school.
Despite being an all-conference football player and class valedictorian, Tranel needed to be a smooth talker around his Native American classmates. “I learned a lot of coping skills to avoid physical encounters,” Tranel says. “I learned to talk my way out of situations really effectively. Those are skills you can use the rest of your life.” He had the grades to get into a good college, but he needed a foreign language, which wasn’t offered at his high school.
That didn’t stop him. Tranel recruited a teacher to teach him Spanish. He ordered his own textbook and took the tests by himself. “I had to take responsibility for things on my own,” says Tranel, who went on to undergraduate work at Notre Dame. “That’s shaped where I’m at today. In science, you have to figure it out as you go along. There’s not a lot of training.”
The oldest of 10 children, Tranel has always been eager to teach and share his discoveries. He loves to see students’ eyes light up when they learn something new. “I’m giving to them my enthusiasm and passion for what I’m doing as a scientist,” Tranel said. “I’m relaying to them my excitement in discovering how the human brain works, the importance of what we do, and the mystery of it all.”
Students in the neuroscience graduate program have access to a key resource to help unlock the mysteries behind a wide variety of common neurological disorders.
One of the aspects that makes this graduate program outstanding is the Iowa Patient Registry, which contains neuropsychological and neuroanatomical data for thousands of patients who visit The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
For example, graduate students Justin Feinstein and Sahib Khalsa, and neurology professors Daniel Tranel and David Rudrauf, discovered a second pathway to feeling your heartbeat after studying a patient who has virtually complete bilateral insula and anterior cingulate cortex brain damage. This person is believed to be one of the only patients in the world with this condition.
The Iowa Patient Registry, which was started in 1982 by former UI head of neurology Antonio Damasio, former UI professor of neurology Hanna Damasio, and Tranel, is unique in many ways. “It’s difficult not only to put in place, but also to sustain,” said Rudrauf, director of the laboratory of brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience. “There is a unique context here, because we have a great neurology department, and we have a population that is very stable. In many major cities, people don’t stay very long, so it’s hard to get people involved. Here, we can see the same patients for decades.
“It’s quite a unique operation; there’s no equivalent in the country and in Europe. There are other registries that are smaller in scale and far more specialized.”
What else keeps the patients coming back year after year? “People are very enthusiastic because they want to help with research,” Rudrauf said. “They also want to learn about themselves and what’s happening to them. They know what it’s like to go through a neurological condition. They want to help, so someday this won’t happen to somebody else.”
The registry consists of patients who are representative with the same type of brain damage in the same location and others who have unique conditions that help with case studies. All patients are put through an extensive battery of neuropsychology tests to profile their case and given an MRI before being admitted to the registry. The Iowa Patient Registry is partially funded by a project grant from the National Institutes of Health.