Meet Cynthia Moss: Neuroscientist and ProfessorMarch 05, 2010
When I first headed to the office of Professor Cynthia Moss, 1986–87 American Fellow, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean, I knew she worked with bats—real, live bats—but I wasn’t sure how close they actually get to the end-of-semester papers she’d been grading.
Cynthia’s office at the University of Maryland looked like those of most professors, but her story is less traditional. After spending a year as a high school exchange student in Sweden, where she volunteered with children with disabilities, Cynthia applied to Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts. Students at this experimental school are encouraged to direct their own learning, and Cynthia chose to study sensory information processes in children.
As an undergraduate, Cynthia worked for the infamous Belchertown State School, which first opened in 1922 as a school for the “feeble-minded.” She started there as a volunteer in the children’s unit and later became a contract employee. At age 19 Cynthia was in charge of one particularly disturbed girl. One day the girl got upset and started creating a scene at the institution. Cynthia tried to pacify her, calling for help as the girl kicked at her with her saddle shoes and clawed at her arms. No one came to Cynthia’s aid that day, and that was when she started thinking about taking her interest in sensory perception in a new direction.
This decision led Cynthia back to school, this time to the University of Massachusetts, where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in 1979. It was there that she began working with specialized animals and sensory systems. Cynthia’s doctoral dissertation focused on auditory systems, and her specialized animal was initially the frog. After attending a fortuitous lecture about the capabilities of studies using bats, she was inspired to switch her focus to bats. Cynthia studies echolocation in bats, or their use of the echoes of their own sounds to determine an object’s location. Bats and other specialized animals are used as models to direct research in other species, including humans. In a recent University of Maryland press release, Cynthia reported that some people without sight rely on echolocation to understand the environment around them.
Cynthia conducted her postdoctoral research on bat studies in Germany. Just into her first year of research, she applied for an AAUW fellowship, which allowed her to stay in the country for another year. This turned out to be an important move, since Cynthia ran into some difficulties training the bats for her study. Toward the end of the first year, she realized she would need to start over with a new set of bats, so she had a new batch shipped from Canada. Most of the bats died in transit, and one of the few surviving had rabies. For the safety of the lab technicians the remaining bats had to be euthanized. With funding from AAUW, Cynthia was able to start again with all new bats at the beginning of the second year.
These days at the University of Maryland, Cynthia is able to incorporate technological advances to obtain precise data about the sensory systems of bats. Their movements are captured by high-speed infrared cameras, and their sound patterns are measured by the 20 microphones that line the room. At the end of the interview, I was hoping for a sneak preview of the “Bat Lab,” but I settled for a detailed computer animation when we found the lab locked for the night.
Following the Fellows Moves to Wednesday
Thank you to everyone who has been reading and commenting on the Following the Fellows series, which began in summer 2008. Since the beginning, I have shared with you the stories of more than 50 highly accomplished women and 10 widely successful community action projects exemplifying AAUW’s goal of breaking through barriers for women and girls. Together we learned about extremophiles from paleontologist Carol Tang, Ghanian concert parties from Professor Catherine Cole, and life under the hijab from the girls’ media community action project, TVbyGIRLS.
If you find yourself thirsty for more, don’t worry. More than 10,000 fellowships and grants have been presented to women in more than 130 countries since the first award in 1888. AAUW fellowship and grant recipient alumnae have many more stories to be shared. Please stay tuned as the Following the Fellows series moves to Wednesdays.