Penn State community grieves loss of biologist Victoria Braithwaite

Sara LaJeunesse
September 30, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Victoria Braithwaite, a highly regarded expert on animal behavior and cognition and a much-loved friend and colleague, died today (Sept. 30) at the age of 52 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She is survived by her two sons, James, 24, of Boulder, Colorado, and Matthew, 22, of Berlin, Germany, as well as her two grandchildren, Jonas Sean, 2, and Isla Viktoria, 3 months.

A professor of fisheries and biology and the Dorothy and Lloyd Huck Chair in Behavioral Biology at Penn State, Braithwaite was a lover of natural history, as practiced by the likes of Charles Darwin and E.O. Wilson, and an aficionada of beautifully designed experiments on par with Robert Paine’s starfish removal experiment.

“She was a keen observer and a deeply curious person,” said Julian Avery, assistant research professor at Penn State.

Braithwaite’s inquisitive personality influenced her own world-renowned research on animal perception, learning and memory. Her passion for these subjects began when she was a graduate student at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, where she studied homing pigeons. A radical finding for the time, she observed that, like humans, homing pigeons use visual cues such as landmarks to find their way home.

Braithwaite did similar work on fish as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom. Specifically, she found that populations of the same species differed in how they solved spatial problems, and that these differences were related to predation risk. In environments with more predators, fish exhibited higher-level cognitive mapping abilities than those that were not exposed to predators.

"Beginning with a Ph.D. in which she tried to understand not just what pigeons can see (in the real world rather than in a lab) but what they do with what they see, Victoria had an enormously successful career in trying to understand the minds of animals," said Susan Healy, professor of biology at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom and a longtime friend of Braithwaite. "Given that we are still trying to do this with our own species, this has been no small challenge."

Braithwaite went even further into the minds of animals through her investigations into whether fish feel pain. The first scientist to experimentally study fish pain, Braithwaite showed that fish have the same kinds of specialized nerve fibers that mammals and birds use to detect noxious stimuli, tissue damage and pain. In an elegantly designed experiment, she found that fish experiencing noxious stimuli are cognitively impaired, and that this impairment can be reversed if the fish are provided with pain relief. Her peer-reviewed manuscripts on the topic continue to be cited by scientists worldwide, a tribute to the high quality of her work.

As a result of this research, Braithwaite often was called upon to lend her expertise to the debate among animal rights activists, fish farmers, anglers and policy makers regarding the humane treatment of fish. Despite criticisms from people holding fast to the notion that fish can’t possibly feel pain, Braithwaite maintained composure and stood firmly by her scientifically derived findings. She insisted that fish do, indeed, feel pain in some way, and that appropriate measures should be taken to minimize their suffering. Her work on this topic was referenced in award-winning novelist Ian McEwan's 2005 novel "Saturday."

Braithwaite published her book, “Do Fish Feel Pain?” in 2010. Her aim in writing it was to present the latest research on fish cognition and neurobiology so as to promote informed discussion. Throughout the pages, Braithwaite’s unbiased approach to investigation is clear.

“She was always observing the world, asking questions and looking for valid answers,” said Margaret Brittingham, professor of wildlife resources at Penn State. “She even did this with her own illness. She never asked, ‘Why me?’ Instead, she noted that her tumor was of an incredibly rare type and marveled at the infinitesimal odds that she developed it. She remained positive until the end; it’s how she lived her entire life.”

In addition to her scientific knowledge, Braithwaite’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm also come through in her book. In the preface, she mentions that the more she learned about the biology, physiology and behavior of fish, the more engrossed she became. “They really are seductive,” she wrote. “My family knows this to their cost because I can rarely pass a pond, stream or river without stopping to search for a tiny bit of movement, the slightest flash of silver that betrays a fish’s position.” She joked about the role reversal with her children in which they sometimes had to drag her away from the water’s edge.

In her more recent work, Braithwaite examined the effects of introducing variability, such as rocks and plants, to salmon and trout hatcheries. She found that providing a more natural environment for young salmon increased their cognitive abilities and, thus, their survival rates upon being released into the wild.

“This work has implications for all kinds of animals that are being reared in captivity and then released into the wild,” said Brittingham.

Braithwaite’s quality and integrity as a scientist were apparent to all who knew her.

“She always displayed a high level of professionalism,” said David Eissenstat, interim head and professor of ecosystem science and management at Penn State. “She set high standards for her own research and teaching, as well as for her students and colleagues.”

Indeed, Braithwaite was a dedicated mentor.

“Not only has Victoria supported me throughout my time at Penn State, but she is a strong supporter of all women scientists,” said Tracy Langkilde, professor and head of the Department of Biology at Penn State. “She empowers and supports them to succeed.”

Peter Hudson, Willaman Professor of Biology and former director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, was involved in Victoria’s appointment to the Penn State faculty in 2007.

“I recall well her interview talk, probably the best I’ve ever heard,” he said. “She started by talking about fish biology and experiments, but then expanded to rivers and landscapes, step-by-step exposing the issues and providing experimental insights facing migratory fish, and all done with superb logic and science. She was such a remarkable leader and scientist that she was later awarded the Dorothy and Lloyd Huck Chair in Behavioral Biology. I can’t help but smile as I think about the meeting where we nominated her and she received totally unanimous support.”

In recognition of her scientific achievements, Braithwaite was named a Fellow of the Linnean Society and of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. In 2006, she was awarded the Fisheries Society of the British Isles Medal for her research on pain in fishes.

She received a bachelor’s degree in zoology and doctorate in animal behavior at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. After serving on the faculty of Edinburgh University for 12 years, she moved to Penn State in 2007, where, in addition to conducting research, she taught animal behavior and animal welfare classes to undergraduate and graduate students.

Despite all of her honors and achievements as a scientist, Braithwaite was an unassuming and modest person.

“She was diplomatic yet understated,” said Avery. “She didn’t need to promote herself because everything she did spoke volumes about her prominence as a scientist and kindness as a human being.”

Last Updated October 17, 2019