Educator, Learning Modeler, Neurobehavioral Toxicologist Helen B. Daly (1941-1995)

November 14, 1941, was an auspicious day for psychology Helen Bohmer Daly was born in Manhattan, New York. However, November 23, 1995, was a tragic day- Helen died after fighting a vigorous three-year battle against breast cancer. That day, her family, friends, colleagues, and the discipline of psychology suffered an irreplaceable loss.

Helen completed her undergraduate education in 1963 at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York. During the summer of 1962, she was a participant in an Undergraduate Research Program sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) at Syracuse University. In 1966, she received her PhD degree from the University of Rochester. The next two years were spent in our laboratory at Syracuse University as a Postdoctoral Fellow sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Beginning in 1968, and literally until her death, Helen was engaged in teaching and research at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. She was appointed Full Professor in 1982 and was promoted in 1989, by the SUNY Board of Trustees, to Distinguished Teaching Professor. Helen was the recipient of a number of special awards bestowed by SUNY-Oswego: President’s Award for Creative and Scholarly Activity and Research (1985), Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching (1986), and a Gold Medal in recognition of her success in obtaining research support (1994).

National recognition of Helen ‘s abilities and achievements was also evident during her career by virtue of her selection as a Consulting or Associate Editor or a frequent reviewer for a number of leading psychological journals. She served for several years on the Basic Behavioral Processes Review Panel of NIMH and also reviewed grant proposals for NSF. Helen was a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and, in 1995, she was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Helen’s research and teaching endeavors were funded over the years by NIMH, NSF, and SUNY-Oswego, and as mentioned below, she received ample funding for her later toxicology research.

Helen’s enthusiasm for research, beginning in her undergraduate days and continuing throughout her life, was evident in any interactions with her: Discussing research, either hers or others, was always a given. She also was a dedicated and effective teacher, both at Rochester as a graduate student and at Oswego. As such, she exerted an important influence on the training and the careers of a large number of students. Many of us will recall the copious notes that Helen wrote in the margins of her convention programs. She used these notes to help her incorporate the latest findings into her lectures and to inform her students about new areas of research that they might wish to pursue in their independent studies or theses. Such concern for students was to Helen simply a part of her responsibility as a professor. Always high on her agenda as a teacher was her desire to transmit to neophytes her convictions about the importance of the research enterprise. She taught a demanding course in Research Methods which, because of her knowledge of and her devotion to the subject matter, elicited evaluations of appreciation for the course from her students despite the course’s difficulty. This commitment culminated in her coauthoring (with Kenneth Rosenberg) a 1993 textbook on research methods: Foundations of Behavioral Research: A Basic Question Approach.

Despite a relatively short career, Helen’s professional contributions were considerable in size and scope. She made major research contributions in three areas: frustration theory, the DMOD mathematical theory, and the effect of environmental toxins on behavior. The manner in which frustration affects behavior was a theme that played some role in each of these areas. This interest originated with her doctoral dissertation, conducted under the guidance of Jim Ison. That research, and the studies conducted during her postdoctoral years at Syracuse University and her initial years at Oswego, tested implications of Amsel’s frustration theory. Her findings provided support for the theory and added importantly to knowledge about the motivational and reinforcing properties of frustration. Much of this research is summarized in her 1974 chapter in Volume 8 of Psychology of Learning and Motivation (edited by Gordon Bower).

In the 1970s, Helen noted that certain phenomena obtained in learning experiments that could not be accounted for by the dominant Rescorla-Wagner learning theory could be explained by Amsel’s frustration theory. She reasoned that if the two theories could be combined in some way, these recalcitrant findings might well be accounted for more parsimoniously. Therefore, Helen, in collaboration with her husband, John (Professor of Mathematics at SUNY -Oswego), developed a mathematical model that incorporated frustration theory into the Rescorla-Wagner theory. The development of this modification of the Rescorla-Wagner model, named DMOD, was facilitated by discussions with Allan Wagner during 1976-1977, when the Dalys were Visiting Fellows at Yale University. By 1982, DMOD had successfully simulated results (trial-by-trial changes and asymptotic levels) in over 30 basic learning situations involving appetitive motivation and discrete trials. Subsequently, the scope of the model was greatly broadened, and the number of successful simulations was more than doubled. These extensions of the model included paradigms involving free operant behavior, learning based on aversive motivation, the ontogeny of paradoxical appetitive reward effects in rat pups as reported by Amsel, and the effect of toxic chemicals on behavior. The simulation of Amsel’s data was aided by a visiting professorship at the University of Texas-Austin in the spring of 1988. Helen was particularly intrigued by the ability of DMOD to account correctly for the counter intuitive results of observing response studies involving preferences for predictable or unpredictable rewards and non-rewards.

Much of this material is surnrnarized in two book chapters: M. Ray Denny (Ed.), Fear, Avoidance, and Phobias: A Fundamental Analysis (1991); and Isidore Gormezano and Edward Wasserman (Eds.), Learning and Memory: The Behavioral and Biological Substrates (1992).

Helen’s interest in the effect of environmental pollutants on behavior began in the 1970s when she joined a community group involved in preventing, with some success, the proliferation of nuclear power plants in the Oswego area. Subsequently, she became concerned about the toxic chemicals found in the Great Lakes, and the data suggesting that ingestion of fish from these waters affected both human and animal behavior. To determine more precisely the basis for such effects, Helen and her colleagues conducted a series of animal experiments using standard learning tasks with rats as subjects. In general, the results indicated that ingesting Lake Ontario salmon rendered the subjects hyper-reactive to negative events. For example, when expected rewards were not forthcoming, an unusually large increase in frustration occurred. More recent findings indicate that this increase in the reaction to aversive stimuli also occurs in the adult offspring of rat mothers who ate Lake Ontario salmon, even though the offspring had never themselves ingested the salmon. A summary of many of the animal studies and an explanation of how DMOD can predict these results is contained in the 1992 book edited by Robert Isaacson and Karl Jensen, The Vulnerable Brain and Environmental Risks, Volume 1: Malnutrition and Hazard Assessment.

A continuing concern about the effect of environmental toxins on human behavior led Helen to seek funding to study the behavioral effects of the consumption of Lake Ontario salmon on human mothers and on their children. For this purpose, she organized and directed the Center for Neurobehavioral Effects of Environmental Toxins at SUNY -Oswego and formed a research team to carry out a large-scale longitudinal study. This research team was successful in obtaining funds from the New York State Great Lakes Research Consortium, the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (A TSDR), as well as from SUNY-Oswego. Helen was particularly gratified in September, 1995, by the receipt of another large grant from ATSDR to support the continuing work on this project. The initial findings from this research are in the process of being published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research and have been presented at several conferences including the 1995 meeting, held at Duluth, Minnesota, of the International Joint Commission on the Health of the Great Lakes. The keynote address at this meeting, which received national television news coverage, was presented by Helen exactly two months before her death. She was an impressive spokesperson in support of the importance of research on environmental pollutants. Helen was invited to give presentations about her research, both animal and human, to a large number of organizations concerned with environmental issues. In addition, she discussed her research in several documentaries that were broadcast on local and national television. Her talents in this endeavor will not be easily replaced.

Helen was an enthusiastic, energetic, friendly person, full of joie de vivre. Her positive, optimistic view of life led her to seek unrelentingly, during her fight against cancer, for new experimental therapies that might result in a cure. Indeed, almost until the end, she believed that such a miracle might occur and that she might be able to complete her research. She loved sailing and skiing and took time in season to enjoy these recreations with her husband, John. Both she and John were attracted to California living and delighted in the sabbatical years they spent at the University of California-San Diego (1983-1984) and at the University of California-Irvine (1990-1991), where they worked and learned about many things, not the least of which were the gastronomic pleasures of sushi. Helen’s immediate survivors are John and her parents, Hilda and Josef Bohmer. It is sad to think that we will never again see her sparkling smile nor hear her cheery greeting.

Observer Vol.9, No.2 March, 1996

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