Despite our continued vigilance to slow the spread of the corona virus, there is a lot going on in the neurosciences at UMass. There are many exciting seminars and virtual events happening in March including a Distinguished Lecture by Catherine Dulac. If you missed last month’s Distinguished Lecture by Larry Abbott, you can watch the recording. This month, there are also neuroscience talks in the Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) seminar series and the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) seminar series. This points to the truly interdisciplinary nature of the neurosciences at UMass. The featured researcher is Deepak Ganesan, who is a professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences. His work on sleep monitoring intersects with other neuroscientists on campus. I am excited by the diversity of topics that we see in the neurosciences at UMass as well as the diversity of speakers.
Neuroscience is continuing to grow at UMass. We welcome a number of new faculty members who are starting their labs. One of them, Jennifer Rauch, will be presenting her work at a Neuroscience & Behavior Seminar on February 17th. Computational Neuroscientist, Larry Abbott from Columbia University will present a Neuroscience Distinguished Lecture on February 10th. Dr. Abbott has given some of the most eloquent explanations of computations that I have ever seen. He has the ability to take difficult subjects and convey their essence.
Over the last few months, I have been working with engineering and computer science faculty to submit an NSF graduate training grant in Biological Neurotechnology. We are building a training program that will enable our students to work in teams across disciplines and make the next advances in the neurosciences. The future of research on the brain is dependent upon technological advances in recording technology and machine learning, both of which are strengths at UMass. I am looking forward to seeing new collaborations emerge on this campus to tackle the most challenging research questions.
You might have noticed that I have not written a Director’s Channel since September. Part of the reason is that I found it difficult to compose an optimistic message in the face of all the awful tragedies that were piling up daily. However, the new year and recent events including the development of vaccines against COVID-19 have given me new hope for the future. I can now foresee a time when the danger of the virus will be minimal, when the nation is guided again by science, not blind allegiance to a deranged sociopath, when we can return to meeting in person rather than over Zoom.
That said, we are really fortunate to live in an age when it is possible to communicate face-to-face with people all over the world. We will be continuing with on-line seminars, at least until the end of spring semester. We have a great line up of speakers for the Neuroscience Distinguished Lecture series.
I wish you, your families, and all of the special people in your life, a happy, healthy, and productive new year.
As the tragedy of COVID-19 continues to spread, we are learning to adapt to our new online lifestyle. In the spring, our seminar speakers all canceled because they were hoping to be able to visit in person the following year; the idea of giving a virtual talk was not appealing. Now, all of those speakers have agreed to give remote seminars. As a result, we have an incredible lineup for the 2020-2021 Distinguished Neuroscience Lectures. These lectures are presented as part of the Neuroscience and Behavior Graduate Program Seminar Series.
I am especially thrilled that next month, Erich Jarvis will be giving three talks in collaboration with the College of Natural Sciences Distinguished Scientist and Engineer Lecture Series and also in collaboration with the Fine Arts Center at UMass. Erich has a very interesting history as a dancer and as a Black scientist, which he will be sharing along with his incredible research on vocal learning.Continue reading
Science has an essential role is to play in modern society. Science is the engine that allows the economy to grow; it creates the innovation for new devices and new knowledge for that improves lives. Currently, we are depending upon science to develop a vaccine to rescue us from the COVID-19 pandemic. But developing the vaccine is only one step towards ending the ongoing tragedy; recent polls found that as few as 50% of Americans are willing to be vaccinated. Science is not enough, people need to be able to understand the knowledge that is gained through science and trust its application.Continue reading
Humans, as a species, have a remarkable capacity to adapt rapidly to environmental challenges by cooperating in groups. Our group identities are based on shared norms and beliefs that get reinforced by the group. However, these beliefs are not necessarily egalitarian, fair, or even humane. Our country is currently facing several challenges simultaneously: COVID-19, economic collapse, systemic racism and police brutality. These crises are being exacerbated by clashes of beliefs fostered by different groups: partisanship, anti-science beliefs, xenophobia, nationalism, and racism. We need to combat these beliefs if we are going to adapt and thrive as a society.Continue reading
In these troubled times, community is very precious. It takes effort to maintain a community when you don’t just bump into people in the hallways or at seminars. We have lost opportunities such as the annual awards dinner to meet and celebrate our students’ accomplishments. Please read about the winners of the Golden Neuron Award and the Vincent Dethier Prize. I am particularly impressed by work of Melise Edwards and Kate Otter, who shared the Early Career Award. Melise is leading MUSEmentorship.com (Mentorship for Under-represented STEM Enthusiasts), which aims to provide representation and mentorship to groups in STEM. She is only a first-year PhD student, but she is an active leader in peer mentorship. Kate Otter has been running a Social Justice Discussion group, which relates social justice to science. I attended the most recent group (via Zoom, of course) and it inspired me to think more deeply about how our perception of the world is determined by our identity and our community. There is a concept in ethology called the Umwelt, which is just German for environment. It refers to how an animal experiences the world. We may think that our own experience of the world is universal and that if anything, animals experience an impoverished version of the world that we see, hear, and smell around us. But, this is far from the truth. Continue reading
Wow, the breadth of neuroscience special events going on in March at UMass is astounding from Biomedical engineering to primate cognition. Leading off on March 2nd, we have Judson Brewer coming to the Old Chapel to talk about mindfulness and addiction. There will be a reception after his talk. March 6th is another special talk by Laurie Santos on primate theory of mind. March 9th, Damien Fair will be giving the CNS Distinguished Scientist and Engineer Lecture and March 11th Danielle Lee will be giving a BRIDGE lecture. Later in the month, Lynn Nadel will be giving a Neuroscience Distinguished Lecture on the nature of memory and space.
This diversity makes me appreciate the diversity of the Neurosciences. There is no one best way to understand the brain. The human brain is an extraordinarily complicated organ with 100 trillion neurons forming a thousand times more connections. Understanding, how this biological device evolved, how it self-assembles, how it functions to control the body, and how it continuously changes to store memories requires a multitude of approaches. Continue reading
February may be the shortest month, but we have a lot going on. I am particularly pleased to be hosting this month’s Distinguished Neuroscience Lecture, Eve Marder. She has been a big influence on me and others in the field. In addition to the seminars, the Neuroscience & Behavior (NSB) Program is going to have its annual recruitment open house. We’re excited to meet the next class of PhD students. We also in the process of submitting an NSF graduate training grant to support students in several graduate programs called Team Research in Biological Neurotechnology (TRiBioNT). If successful, it will help fund students in three life sciences graduate programs (NSB, OEB, MCB) and two engineering programs (ECE and MIE). There are several themes running through the proposal. One is to reintegrate Neuroscience more with other life-sciences graduate programs. Another is to engage engineers to build devices for studying the brain and to be inspired by not just the human brain, but the amazing neural computations that animals can do. Continue reading
It’s the beginning of a new year and full of anticipation. Neuroscience labs have started to move into the newly renovated space in the Morrill Science Center. There is a great line up of speakers for the spring 2020 Distinguished Neuroscience Lecture Series:
- January 29: Naoshige Uchida
- February 19: Eve Marder
- March 25: Lynn Nadel
- April 8: Larry Abbott
- April 29: Hollis Cline
Mark your calendars for the Interdisciplinary Neurosciences Conference on May 11th, which features as Keynote speaker, Nobel Laureate Thomas Südhof. Other exciting talks are in the works.
For my New Year’s resolution, I resolved to write more about what I’m thinking in this Director’s Channel. Continue reading