For the last 49 years at Emory, Goodrich C. White Professor of Psychology Darryl Neill, has been researching and teaching the science of how people work. Whether he’s in lab observing the behavior of rats undergoing electrical stimulation, or in lecture teaching undergraduates about the latest neuroscience advances, Neill has been guided by a desire to create and spread knowledge.
Neill, who is set to retire after the Spring semester, arrived at Emory as a professor in 1971 to begin research on reward systems in the brain. But he was not greeted by facilities that were research-ready — in fact, the lab’s temporary location was in such disrepair that wild rats would often come in and play with his lab rats.
Neill had the grants to do his neurochemical analyses, and his Laney Graduate School dean gave him materials to build a lab, but the dean could not pay to build the space. He and his graduate students learned to lay linoleum on the floor and Formica on the benchtops to build their own lab.
Neill described his first years at Emory as a drastically different experience from that of current Emory students.
“If you went back 15 to 20 years ago, you would really find faculty saying that Emory is an adolescent university, trying to find out what it wants to be when it grows up,” Neill said.
Neill traces his interest in psychology back to his earliest life experiences. He grew up in Orlando, Fla. during the Cold War era, when the town was host to a U.S. Air Force bomber base. At the time, the Orlando International Airport was the McCoy Air Force Base where all U-2 spy planes were launched from. 90 miles off the coast of Florida, nuclear-armed Soviet missiles were being assembled and installed in Cuba.
“I grew up with B-47 [Stratojets] loaded with [hydrogen] bombs flying over my house,” Neill said. “I looked at all this and I said to myself, ‘Why are people like this? This is silly.’”
Neill saw these dramatic demonstrations of human behavior and wanted to know what inclined people to behave this way. This curiosity, paired with what Neill describes as a natural tendencies towards academics, eventually led Neill to psychology.
“I’m fundamentally an intellectual,” Neill said. “When I was young, … I would read the fine print on the side of the cereal box. It took me decades [to] realize that was weird. Most people have some curiosity, but [not] this overwhelming interest in how the world works. [For me], part of that was how people work.”
Neill fostered his academic interests at Eckerd College (Fla.), a liberal arts college he attended from 1963 to 1967. He described the college as being “infused with intellectual interest” rather than pre-professional.
As a biology major, Neill considered following his father’s path and becoming a doctor, but ultimately concluded that his academic bent didn’t align with medicine. However, he was still uncertain which particular academic field best matched his interests.
“The central question I had is, ‘Why do people act the way they do? Why don’t they sit down and figure it all out?’” Neill said. “Instead they [strut] around and preen and wave weapons. I decided there has to be an academic field that studies this.”
Initially, Neill explored a wide range of academic fields, starting with psychiatry, then anthropology, and finally psychology. Each field didn’t quite fit Neill’s beliefs about biologically determined human nature. He realized that if he was going to study human behavior, he would have to study the human brain itself. Unfortunately, the field of neuroscience didn’t exist yet.
“I looked at all these people, and said, ‘None of those fields are what I want. I’m looking for human nature,'” Neill said. “Humans are humans because they have human brains, so I said to myself, ‘How do you study brains?’”
This led him to the biopsychology graduate program at the University of Chicago, where he graduated with a doctorate in 1972. While conducting research there, Neill also taught for the first time, though it wasn’t until he got to Emory that he realized he had a passion for the practice.
In regards to his own career, Neill believes he was a teacher first and a researcher second, although he likely wouldn’t have been as happy if he wasn’t able to do both.
“If I look back, I’m primarily a teacher,” Neill said. “I had the federal grants, I had a lab, I did research, I’m still writing up papers. … I really did both, but my strength is in teaching.”
Neill has been teaching “Drugs and Behavior” since he created the class 48 years ago. The class offers an overview of how major psychoactive drugs affect human behavior by influencing brain mechanisms.
Randy Blakely (81C) identifies Neill’s “Drugs and Behavior” class as a major milestone in his life. Blakely came to Emory interested in the humanities, but took the course his sophomore year after Neill’s suggestion. Blakely is now the first graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s (Md.) neuroscience doctorate program and a professor of biomedical sciences at Florida Atlantic University.
“I went to [Neill’s] class, and I became a passionate neuroscientist,” Blakely said. “It changed my life. I really felt like that was what I was looking for.”
Blakely described Neill’s teaching style as a mix of lectures and problem solving, which compels students to think about biological problems and challenges them on their scientific ideas. Blakely credits Neill for instilling in him a fascination with neuroscience and a desire to continue learning, which he believes is the most important goal a professor can strive for.
“It was a remarkable transition for [me], [because I] really had little by way of academic depth coming into college,” Blakely said. “[I met] a few really transformative figures, and I would say Daryl Neill is right there at the top.”
Neill said that part of what makes teaching at Emory so rewarding is the potential to change the trajectory of students’ lives.
“Undergraduates are at a stage where people can say, ‘You changed my life!’” Neill said. “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen students who took my course, got interested, and [changed career paths].”
Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Elaine Walker, a department colleague, described Neill as a storyteller, and said that his aptitude for teaching flows directly from his personality, particularly his curiosity.
Walker also noted Neill’s influence in the founding of the graduate and undergraduate programs in neuroscience, and recalled that he maintained a sense of community in the psychology department when he was chairman of the department from 1997 to 2003.
Throughout his career of nearly five decades, Neill has maintained close ties between his research and teaching — deriving satisfaction from both.
“I’ll put it in a nutshell: I’ve had a career where I get to read and learn the most interesting ideas there are, in all kinds of fields,” Neill said. “[I get to] talk [and] be friends with incredible people, and then I get paid to tell people about that. What could be any better?”