As the semester draws to a close, we are starting to think about a non-virtual world again. Over half the population of Massachusetts has now received at least one dose of the vaccine. UMass will be requiring all students to be vaccinated before returning in the fall when classes will once again be face-to-face. I am looking forward to seeing students and colleagues again. However, I hope that the “normal” that we return to after the pandemic is a more enlightened one than the one we had before.
It has been a very difficult year with the pandemic, the insurrection at the Capitol, and the public murder of George Floyd and other people of color. The continued trauma from structural racism led to a groundswell of activism this year. Here at UMass, NSB student Wayne Barnaby helped lead that activism, by initiating a petition to the administration. He was recognized for his leadership by a College Award for Excellence. NSB faculty member Karine Fénelon was also recognized with this award for the leadership role that she played this year in the racial reckoning on campus. I wish that they did not need to devote energy to this issue; I wish that we could be celebrating their science instead of their activism. But, this important work is what will lead us to a new, more enlightened “normal”.
It’s been just over a year now since our world went virtual. Zoom meetings, online teaching, COVID-19 testing have all become routine. Now that people are starting to be vaccinated, I’m hopeful that by fall we can resume in-person instruction, that labs can operate at full capacity, and that conferences can be held in person. Although, it’s been great to hear talks from people all around the world, we have missed out on the casual interactions, the serendipitous discussions that lead to different ways of thinking. In fact, all of the major breaks in my career have come from interactions at conferences.
Last year, we canceled the annual UMass Interdisciplinary Neurosciences conference because of the campus shutdown. We decided not to hold a virtual conference this year because personal interactions are the heart of such a local meeting. I’m confident that we will resume the tradition in the spring of 2022 when it is safe to meet in person again.
In the meantime, we continue our great lineup of virtual neuroscience speakers in April including a Distinguished Lecture by Lynn Nadel. His book, co-authored with Nobel laureate John O’Keefe, “The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map” has framed neuroscience research on learning and memory over the last half century. Although, it would have been nice to meet Dr. Nadel in person, I am still excited to hear his perspective on the progress made in this field.
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.
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.
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.
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 →