Long-time College of Medicine researcher reflects on contributions

While many may take it for granted, Ralph Norgren has studied taste for the last 31 years at Penn State College of Medicine. After making a breakthrough discovery and shaping the lives of his students, Norgren has recently retired to enjoy the finer flavors in life.

The career that would eventually lead to great accomplishments actually began as an accident.

“As an undergraduate, I was considering psychology or economics,” said Norgren. “I got better grades in psychology, so that’s what I decided to do.”

While he studied psychology at University of Pennsylvania, Norgren came across research on feeding motivation. As a graduate student at University of Michigan, he worked with the man who discovered the reward system in the brain. Norgren combined the two bodies of research as an associate professor at Rockefeller University.

In this position, he researched the sense of taste as a model system and determined the brain organization of taste in animals. Norgren went on to study the behavioral aspects when he joined Penn State College of Medicine in 1983. He later discovered an area in the brain that projects taste information from the tongue to the system that controls motivation and reward.

“One of my biggest accomplishments was discovering the neural basis of how taste information is used in the brain,” said Norgren. “This opened a whole new field of study.”

Norgren found motivation in bringing students into his research. Just as he had once stumbled upon his career, he helped students get started in theirs. Most of his students have gone on to be successful scientists.

“Having their careers flourish and my scientific interests diversify in their minds and laboratories is my most significant contribution to the College of Medicine,” said Norgren.

Norgren was named a Distinguished Professor of Neural and Behavior in 2008. He received the Postdoctoral Mentorship Award in 2007, which recognizes the commitment to assisting colleagues. Norgren has also authored more than 135 papers and received numerous national awards.

Sue Grigson, professor of neural and behavioral science, noted Norgren’s influence throughout his time at the College of Medicine.

“The deep and broad impact of his effort reflects his brilliance, generosity, high standards and work ethic,” she said.

Grigson says that Norgren has set the bar high for the coming students and faculty, and that his research will serve as a foundation for future study in taste, feeding, memory, reward and motivation.

In his retirement, Norgren will continue to work on his research papers. He also hopes to keep up with the repairs in his old country home.

“The balance will shift between science and the other things in life,” said Norgren.

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Last Updated April 04, 2014