Buckingham, now Buckingham, Browne and Nichols
Nobel autobiography
Nauta died in 1994. MIT obituary
Results of her thesis were published in Science
The branch of physiology that studies the relationship between electric phenomena and bodily processes.
The department subsequently changed its name to cell and developmental biology.
Casagrande Biosketch

Photo by Daniel Dubois  
Vivien Casagrande  
Vivien Casagrande had a privileged upbringing in the suburbs of Boston. Her mother and father both immigrated to the United States shortly before World War II - he from Austria and she from Germany. Her father, Arthur, was a prominent designer of earthen dams and the foundations of high-rise buildings who taught civil engineering and soil mechanics initially at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and then at Harvard until his death in 1981. So she went to an exclusive private school for girls Click to open/close footnote with the daughters of university presidents and famous scientists.

Casagrande had always done well in math and physics, so after she graduated from high school she decided to go into one of these fields. “But I was turned off by east coast snobbery and decided to attend a large, co-educational campus,” she says, As a result, she enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which she had visited while accompanying her father to a conference.

A turning point came in one of her math classes. “I remember looking out the windows at the spectacular view and thinking how boring the course was,” she recalls. Having decided that a career in math was not her cup of tea, she began exploring other options. She took a course in biopsychology, which included classes and lab. “I thought it was very interesting, so I decided to switch majors.”

After graduating in 1964 with a degree in psychology and a minor in biology, Casagrande wasn’t certain what to do next. “At that time, most young women got married and had kids, but I wasn’t ready for that,” she says.

Returning to Boston, she landed a job as a technician at the management consulting firm Arthur D. Little. Her job involved looking at the effects of the compound methotrexate on the brains of macaque monkeys. After two and a half years, however, she was bored and began looking around for a new job.

While she was job hunting, Casagrande interviewed with Nobel Laureate Torston Wiesel Click to open/close footnote at Harvard to talk about a technician’s job in his lab. “Wiesel told me that he could give me job in his lab, but it wouldn’t be much different from my job at ADL,” she says. “He asked me if I’d considered going to graduate school.” He suggested that she take some courses as a special graduate student at either Harvard or MIT. This advice turned out to have a major influence on her career.

One of the courses was on neuroanatomy and was taught by the famous anatomist Walle Nauta. Click to open/close footnote Another course was animal behavior taught by Alan Hein. “I loved it, in part because, as a girl, I had dreamed of becoming another Jane Goodall, living in the jungle and studying the behavior of animals,” she says.

“I didn’t put all this together until well after the deadline to apply to graduate school,” she says. But Nauta made some calls on her behalf and found that Irving Diamond, a neuroscientist at Duke, had an unfilled graduate slot.

So Casagrande packed up her VW bug and drove to North Carolina. “I must have been quite a sight when I arrived in Diamond’s office,” she recalls. “My hair was long and I was dressed in an outrageous outfit with a short skirt.” She thinks it was her appearance in part that prompted Diamond to observe at their first meeting that she didn’t have to get a doctorate, adding that his wife didn’t have a Ph.D. and was quite happy. According to Casagrande, “My reaction was, ‘What a strange thing for him to say!’”

Although it turned out that Diamond was a bit of a chauvinist - Casagrande was one of only two women who got doctorates under his supervision - she says that he became a good friend and proved to be very supportive.

“At that time, I was too immature for marriage. Boy friends had never been a matter of much concern and, because of my father, money was not a big issue,” Casagrande says. That left her free to throw herself into her studies and research. “Although I didn’t plan it all out, I worked very hard,” she says.

The hard work paid off. She successfully completed her thesis that dealt with the effects that the superior colliculus [FN: Part of the brain that constitutes a primitive center for vision. Also called optic lobe, optic tectum.] has on the behavior of tree shrews and received her doctorate in 1972 in physiological psychology. Click to open/close footnote

After staying at Duke an additional year as a post-doctoral fellow, Casagrande moved north to the University of Wisconsin to study anatomy with Ray Guillery. There she learned electron microscopy and electrophysiology. Click to open/close footnote At this time she also met and married James McKanna, an anatomist who had graduated from the University of Wisconsin and was now on the faculty at SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, NY.

“I considered living in Syracuse. Although the people were wonderful and I had a job offer there, I just couldn’t take all the snow,” Casagrande says. So, when Jon Kaas, who was also one of Diamond’s students, helped get them appointments at Vanderbilt, they moved to Nashville - McKanna to a position in anatomy Click to open/close footnote and Casagrande to a joint position in anatomy and psychology.

Before having children, the couple realized that they would need domestic help and decided that this wasn’t an area where they wanted to cut corners. “If you are trusting your most valuable possessions to someone, you have to pay them a living wage,” she asserts. They hired a fellow church member to prescreen applicants. Although they had specified a person of mature years, the screener persuaded them to talk to a 19-year-old applicant. When they met the young lady, they agreed that she was perfect for the job. So they hired her before their first son, James, was born and she stayed with them for six and a half years. They continued to have hired help until their second son, Paul, finished ninth grade.

When her sons were going to university school, they were a familiar sight in her lab and office. “They would come over after school was out, lie on the floor of my office and take naps, and people with appointments would be forced to step around them,” she recalls fondly.

In order to keep their relationship strong while their children were small, the couple insisted on having a “date” once a week when they would go out to dinner alone. “When you are raising children, you need time for adult conversation,” she says.

The family went on skiing trips every winter and, as the children got older, the couple took them along on trips to scientific conferences when they took place at locations where there were interesting things to keep the boys entertained. Sailing, bicycling, basketball and tennis were other favorite family pastimes.

Today, her oldest son has graduated from college with a triple major in computer science, psychology and neuroscience and is working at the Oregon Health Science Center in Portland. Her youngest son is studying engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. And McKanna, who retired a year ago, is urging her to consider retiring as well, even though he still does research and publishes papers part time.

“I’m still having too much fun to think about retiring,” Casagrande objects, admitting that she is the workaholic in the family. However, she has agreed to begin taking more time off to travel with her husband.

Vivien Casagrande’s online biosketch and CV