Brandeis’ not-so-secret buried treasure is a research lab
A look at the history of the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Lab and how it has changed over the years.
The hike up the Rabb steps is a notable part of nearly every Brandeis student's daily commute to class. But seldom known is that, as they climb the steps, under their feet and in the basement of the Rabb Graduate Center is the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Lab, one unlike any other in the world.
Hidden behind a locked door that requires a pin for entry is a series of rooms brightly lit by LEDs. On the concrete walls of the lab, there are homages to space, such as an abstract painting of a rocket launching and photos of astronauts that formerly hung in the lab’s namesake Ashton Graybiel’s office. Above the lab is the desk of Prof. Jim Lackner (NPSY), the lab’s founder. The desk is littered with images of astronauts and sketches of space-related machinery. Throughout the lab is equipment such as an optokinetic drum; robotic arms; a multi-axes rotation and tilt device; one of three rotating litter chairs in the world; and the world's largest rotating room. Although the tilt device and rotating litter chair seem similar, they are different because the rotating chair measures the effect of long duration space missions, whereas the MART measures reaction to gravitational pull.
Spatial orientation is the way in which we orient our bodies in regard to the space around us. Factors that can impact spatial orientation include gravitational pull, impact on the vestibular system in your inner ear, or vestibular illusions. The role of the lab is to observe the different ways in which a person’s spatial orientation operates and is affected.
The lab's history begins long before its opening in 1982. When Lackner completed his Ph.D., he went on to work at Brandeis while also continuing work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since he accessed resources from both universities, both schools were listed in the academic papers he published. While his start-up funding was only $2000, he was able to still use his lab at MIT and the MIT machine shop to build equipment.
Lackner had met Ann Graybiel during graduate school, and the two were married by August of his final year of study. “Her father was sort of a formidable guy, very disciplined, very nice, [had] a great sense of humor. But we never talked about work,” Lackener said in a March 31 interview with the Justice. Nearly half a decade after his marriage, Lackner’s father-in-law, Ashton Graybiel, asked to see a series of optical illusions caused by vibrations that Lackner was working on. This was the start of their professional relationship.
Graybiel worked for the U.S. Navy in their lab in Pensacola, Florida. During the span of his career, he conducted important research and played a key role in the advancement of U.S. spaceflight, including examining John Glenn after his 1962 Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. “He's probably the greatest pioneer of space medicine, and he was my father-in-law,” Lackner said. Over the next several years, Lackner would spend about six weeks a year with Graybiel working together at the lab in Pensacola. Lackner later became affiliated with NASA and soon after received a $70,000 grant which went to conducting research at Brandeis.
When Graybiel retired, NASA knew of his work with Lackner and gave all the equipment they had funded to Lackner. Lackner had decided the laboratory should be named after his father-in-law and partner. Lackner recalled with a smile across his face, “He was thrilled. And then we had a symposium where people attended from all over.” With the influx of new equipment, the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation lab was opened in 1982.
To celebrate the opening of the laboratory, speakers ranging from Brandeis administrators and professors to NASA scientists gave a series of talks on October 20 and 21, 1982. A poster for the event was brought by astronaut Bill Thoroton on the space shuttle “Columbia.” This was Columbia’s final flight before it crashed in 2003. The poster now hangs in Lackner’s office.
One speaker, Charles Stark Draper, whose lab is associated with national defense, was met with protests from the student body. A poet visiting campus had seen his name on the posters advertising the opening of the lab and wrongfully assumed that the lab was helping with weapons research for the military. While some of the lab’s research helped military pilots, it didn’t have anything to do with weapons. Photos from the Brandeis archives show about a dozen students standing at the entrance to the Usdan Student Center, which faces Rabb. The student protestors are pictured holding long banners that read “10.9 billion dollars in space shuttle development, how independent is NASA?” and “Draper Labs’ Defense contracts 86 million dollars.”
Despite attempts by Lackner to explain the research being done, the students didn’t initially listen. It wasn’t until former neuroscience chair John Lisman asked them to listen to Lackner that they stopped protesting. “If it hadn't been for Draper, the chances of nuclear warfare would have been much greater,” Lackner explained.
Throughout the last 41 years, the lab has continued to conduct experiments that impact both NASA and the private sector. “I think our success is that we're on the edge,” expressed the lab’s associate director Prof. Paul DiZio (PSYC) in a March 17 interview with the Justice. Since the 1960s, Lackner and researchers at the lab have published 235 papers, 15 of which are from the last 13 years. The research has ranged from complex experiments in zero gravity to simple optical illusions that ask the subject to guess how high off the ground a tiny light is while the room is dark and rotating. “We have it all here in the sense that I went in the basement the week before and made a discovery,” Lackner said.
While Brandeis provides a home for the lab, the University does not provide any funding to the laboratory itself. In fact, DiZio explained that 63.5% of the funding they receive goes back to Brandeis to pay for the lab space. Initially, the lab was funded by NASA, but around the mid-90s the agency decided to prioritize funding a moon flyby project, rather than spatial orientation. The funding that the lab had relied on began to disappear. The lack of funding meant Lackner and DiZio had to find new ways to fund the lab’s research by relying on other agencies and private companies for funding. Equipment such as the multi-axes rotation and tilt device were funded by the Air Force and cost approximately $300,000. After attending a conference on spatial orientation during the week of March 20, Lackner believes that there will be many opportunities down the road to continue to fund their research. “The future is very bright,” Lackner explained.
While the lab has been conducting important work, the campus culture has made the lab look like a different place. “The University is in sort of a static state at this point in time, partly because of COVID and other issues. But there was a time in the 90s and early 2000s where it was really a very, very exciting place,” Lackner said. He accredits much of that excitement to former Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz.
Although the lab is a state-of-the-art facility, most Brandeis students are unaware of its existence. The lab has received attention from media outlets such as PBS, the YouTuber Tom Scott, and even frequently in BrandeisNow; however, this coverage has had little impact on Brandeis students’ knowledge of the lab. “The students don't really know about it, but the administration doesn't either,” Lackner said. “It used to be the case that every president would get a tour, and we'd show the facilities. None of the current senior administration has a clue what we have because they haven't ever bothered to visit.”
While the campus culture around the lab isn’t the same, the lab’s work culture hasn’t changed. After all, the lab has researchers that love what they do — such as Avijit Bakshi and Alberto Pierobon — who Dr. Lackner described as “geniuses.” Pierobon was a part of Tom Scott’s Youtube video about the lab. They work alongside Lackner, DiZio, and a team of other researchers and graduate students to advance the world’s knowledge about spatial orientation. The equipment is integral to the research being conducted, but it’s the researchers that are the lifeblood of the lab’s success. Without their knowledge and passion, there would be no Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Lab.