The 19th century physicist, Johann Philipp Gustav von Jolly, is quoted as telling Max Planck “…in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” Ironically, Planck’s work would help move the field from Newtonian dynamics to Quantum physics. I am fond of saying that neuroscience is in its Newtonian phase; we know all of the parts and how they work. We can explain how photons excite opsins in photoreceptors and how retinal ganglion cells convey the information to the thalamus and how it is transformed in cortex. We know how shapes and colors are encoded by the firing of particular neurons in particular parts of the brain. But we fail to have an explanation about how that activity causes you to have the experience you are having. We don’t know why red has a different quality from blue.Continue reading
The Neuroscience community at UMass is coming back to life after isolation during the pandemic. It was great to see the breadth of research at the Interdisciplinary Neurosciences Poster Conference last month. As we approach 2022, my hope is that we can again have more in-person events. This fall, we held two faculty forums to identify and strengthen interdisciplinary neuroscience research. IONs will be awarding seed grants this year to pursue some of the research areas emerging from these meetings. Stay tuned for more information.
Excuse me, it’s been a while since I have written; there have been technical difficulties in putting out the newsletter. But frankly, I was feeling malaise after the initial hope in June that the pandemic was over. I’m allowing myself to feel hopeful again as the case numbers continue to decrease and the vaccination rate continues to rise. We are having in-person seminars again and it feels great to be in the presence of people and have those little unplanned conversations, which are so important in science. To help those along, I’m excited that we’ll be hosting an Interdisciplinary Neuroscience, Computer Science, & Engineering Poster Conference on Tuesday, November 2nd. Researchers from three colleges will be meeting and sharing their work and getting to know one another to build collaborations. Much of the future of neuroscience lies in collaborative team science that incorporates the skills and expertise of computer scientists and engineers. To build the bridges across disciplines, we have started a series of faculty forums to allow faculty meet and find the threads that can be woven together into new and interesting patterns. I’m excited to see what new ideas emerge from these.
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.
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