Garet Lahvis is a former professor of Behavioral Neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. He graduated from Brown University with a bachelor degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (‘83), from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in Natural Resources (‘87), and the University of Maryland with a master’s degree in Toxicology (92) and a doctorate in Immunology (‘97). He is the recipient of two literary awards. One of his essays was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Over the first half of his scientific career, Garet’s research focused primarily on understanding how chemical pollutants in the environment contribute to disease, mostly in wild animals. He was the first scientist to find a link between body burdens of PCBs, a ubiquitous group of chemical pollutants, and immune susceptibilities of bottlenose dolphins to ongoing mass mortality events along the Atlantic Coast. Years later, at the University of Wisconsin, Garet identified a natural function of the mammalian receptor for dioxins, another group of ubiquitous chemical pollutants contributing to diseases ranging from human cancers to beak deformities in fish-eating birds.
As a professor, Garet shifted his focus toward gaining a greater understanding of the social emotions of laboratory mice, his objective to identify the environmental risk factors for autism and gain a greater understanding of nonhuman animal subjective experiences. Through careful experiments, his laboratory discovered that mice feel pleasure from the company of other mice and empathy for their pain.
Discovering that mice have capacities to feel with and for other mice, he started questioning whether mice also had perspectives about the impoverished environmental conditions inside laboratory cages. He found scientific evidence that the standard cage environment can render lab animals physically and mentally feeble, rendering them not just inadequate models of human health and disease, but potential obstacles to the development of more advanced treatments of human disease, particularly psychiatric illness. Nature and Science magazines featured his argument against the unquestioned relevance of caged animal studies. After publishing 45 peer-reviewed papers, Garet left animal research, convinced that if he took the implications of his research seriously, he would have to step out of it.
Garet is now writing a book for the University of Chicago Press. It argues that for the biomedical sciences to advance, scientists can no longer ignore that nonhuman animals can have rational and felt mental experiences. To develop new categories of drugs for treating psychiatric illness, a hurdle scientists have failed to overcome for over 50 years, the biomedical research community will need to change how it works with lab animals. At Harvard, Garet will collaborate with scholars in law, ethics, religion, and science to reassess how humans interact with the animal species we hope to learn from.