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Dan Tranel
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DAN TRANEL An award-winning mentor asks a lot from his students—but gives just as much in return.

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 a little 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 in October, when they presented him 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 students to discuss their cutting-edge 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 frequent 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.’”

In August, Tranel celebrated his 30th anniversary at Iowa. Before joining the faculty, he completed 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 anywhere.”

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.

Being isolated 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, the relevance of what we do, and the mystery of it all.”

Story by John Riehl; photo by Tom Jorgensen

December 7, 2009