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Joe Anisko

When asked if he has any advice for recent or future Psychology graduates, Joe Anisko (BA: Physiological Psychology, 1969) pauses for only a second before saying, “Get the best and broadest scientific education you can, and then apply it in any number of different scenarios. Just get the education and dive into this work. That will give you translatable experiences and skills to move forward in almost any endeavor. Get that broad scientific education, and then never stop learning.”

Coming from someone else, Anisko’s last imperative—never stop learning—may sound like a platitude. From Anisko, however, it is profound: not so much mere advice as an axiomatic summary of his life’s work, his values, and his own irresistible drive to discover and apply new scientific knowledge. From his early years in the U-M Department of Psychology, to his time as PhD student at UC Berkeley, to his 40+-years in the pharmaceutical industry, Anisko has been driven by an almost reflexive need to keep learning.

Things could have turned out very differently for Anisko, though, and he credits the U-M Department of Psychology for providing tools and opportunities that sparked his own intellectual awakening and transformed his life. In fact, before Anisko even came to U-M, it was his serendipitous discovery of an article about a U-M neuroscientist that first crystalized his interest in brain research. He recalls, “Even as a kid, I was always interested in behavior and in why people did what they did. But one day I happened across an article about a guy named James Olds, who was at U-M and doing some pioneering work on parts of the brain that functioned as inherent pleasure centers. It was the first example of a biological reinforcing parameter within the body. Before that, psychology was mostly concerned with food pellets for rats. But this showed that there were things within the body that were inherently reinforcing and influenced behavior. I saw that and just said, ‘Oh! I want to do that!’”

But Anisko, who grew up as part of a lower-middle class family in Runnemede, New Jersey, was an outsider to academia and not sure if he would be accepted. “Here I was, a working class kid living behind my parents’ delicatessen. It sounds like a story,” he laughs. “But I was just nowhere. I didn’t have the strongest background. I went to a really bad high school. I just didn’t have any credentials. But I applied to the University of Michigan, and to my surprise, they took a chance on me. They took a chance and gave me an opportunity, and for that I have always been grateful.”

Even after being accepted at U-M, Anisko’s transition into university life was at first filled with confusion and uncertainty. He recalls, “I didn’t even know where Ann Arbor was, and there was of course no Google Maps back then. But—and this is all true—I had a Motown record, and Motown record labels had a map of Detroit on them, and that was the map I used to drive from New Jersey to Ann Arbor. I went to LSA and basically said, ‘Here I am!’ At the time, I didn’t even know that you had to sign up for housing or anything. But the administrators saw that I clearly did not know what I was doing, and they helped me. They found me housing at Baits, which had just opened at the time. They took care of me.”

Administrative stumbles aside, Anisko hit the ground running when it came to academics, and he again credits U-M for providing him with opportunities and challenges that allowed him to flourish. Despite his lack of experience, the university placed him—at age 17—into a graduate seminar, an intellectual environment that further developed his burgeoning interest in biopsychology and neuroscience.

During his first semester, he also took an introductory course in what was then called “physiological psychology,” which ended up providing him with the opportunity to work with James Olds, the man who had inspired Anisko to come to Michigan in the first place. “One day, the professor casually mentioned that if anyone wanted to be a research assistant, there were some openings over at the Brain Research Lab, which was where Olds was working,” Anisko says. “I still remember that I was uncharacteristically sitting at the back of the class that day, and I remember thinking that everyone is going to sign up for this! How can I get to the front of this classroom?”

Anisko laughs and continues: “But I got up there, and then I started working with one of Olds’s postdocs, implanting electrodes into the brains of rats. Then somehow Olds himself saw me around and asked me to become his assistant. It really was like a story:  before, I was sitting on the porch of my parents’ delicatessen, and now I’m the undergraduate assistant for James Olds. That’s how I got started, and it opened me up to the whole scientific way of establishing what is true and not true.”

After his first experience with scientific research, Anisko was hooked for life. He completed his BA at U-M and then a PhD at UC Berkeley, where he worked with the trailblazing behavioral endocrinologist Frank Beach. While doing a postdoc at UPenn and simultaneously teaching at another college, however, he began to suspect that life in academia might not be the best fit for him. For one thing, he had a new baby to support, and the academic job market was shrinking at the time. For another thing, he realized that while he did enjoy teaching, research was his true passion. Finally, he suspected that the particularly slow pace and narrow focus of academic research might ultimately leave him feeling bored.

After a period of soul-searching, another serendipitous discovery—this time of a classified ad—helped Anisko decide to apply for the job that would define his career. “I saw this ad in The New York Times from Johnson & Johnson,” Anisko recalls. “I called them up, and what they were trying to do was raise the level of science in their FDA drug-approval applications, so they were looking for PhDs. They hired me, and my job was to compile all of the scientific evidence into a scientifically-driven narrative.”

Anisko explains that the broad scientific education he received at U-M and elsewhere was the ideal preparation for the job: “All of the skills I learned translated to this new role perfectly. When you’re developing a drug, you have pharmacology, biology, toxicology—you are not an expert in any of those things, but you have to be able to deal with all of them. The other thing you are always evaluating is risk. There are always risks, because data are not black and white. What my career became was dealing with risk from a scientific point of view: you present the data, and then you present what you conclude based on those facts.”

After leaving Johnson & Johnson, Anisko worked for other major pharmaceutical firms, including serving as Head of Quality for the Swedish firm Astra and as Head of R&D Quality after the company’s merger with Zeneca. Throughout it all, Anisko emphasizes, he was able to put his scientific education to work in ways that allowed him to satisfy his fundamental drive to never stop learning—to an even greater degree than if he had remained in academia. “I’ve concluded that I would not have been so happy in academia. In academic research, you tend find a research area and then continue mining that vein. Well, I get bored easily,” he laughs. “Developing drugs gave me new scientific puzzles all the time. There was always a new drug, a new mechanism, a new part of the body. It was always learning. I decided to leave academia partly because I felt like I had to—I had to raise the kid. But if you look at the arc of your life, a lot of it comes from yourself, and I think I also needed to do this for me. I was lucky enough to do the thing that saved me. That was actually my motivation for doing this interview: I want students to know that there is a life out there, and there are many different ways that they can use their education. I have had a blessed life. I was doing things on the absolute top level, and I owe it all to the fact that the University of Michigan took a chance on me.”

To demonstrate his gratitude for ways that U-M changed his life and to support similarly transformational experiences for future students, Anisko has agreed to make a sizeable donation: a $25,000 current gift and a $475,000 bequest. Anisko’s gift will support undergraduates in Biopsychology, Cognition & Neuroscience (BCN) and other biopsychology-affiliated programs. He explains, “I think it’s very important from a scientific viewpoint to continue looking into the biological bases of behavior. In our country, research has tended to focus more on the environmental bases of behavior. I am not saying that the biological bases of behavior are the only ones or even the most important ones, but I think it’s very important that we still consider them. I want to support people who may want to go down that road, and I think undergraduates are at the age when many people most need support. It’s both a critical time for their intellectual development and a time when they may need financial support to help them stay in school—or to stay in a science major instead of getting business degree or something else that seems like it offers a more direct path to a job. I also just want people to know that the kind of multidisciplinary education you get in BCN or similar programs offers a very powerful set of tools to use in a wide variety of different things.”