Polkovnikov, Reinhard, and Stamenovic Promoted to Full Professor along with 5 others on Charles River Campus

in MSE Spotlight Faculty, NEWS

Newly appointed faculty at CAS, ENG, Questrom, SSW

Marc Howard (left), a CAS professor of psychological and brain sciences, has become a full professor. Renée Spencer (right), an SSW professor of human behavior in the social environment, is also among the eight new BU full professors. Howard photo courtesy of the BU Neuroscience Program. Spencer photo by Kalman Zabarsky
Marc Howard (left), a CAS professor of psychological and brain sciences, has become a full professor. Renée Spencer (right), an SSW professor of human behavior in the social environment, is also among the eight new BU full professors. Howard photo courtesy of the BU Neuroscience Program. Spencer photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Wearing a Black Flag baseball cap, Marc Howard acknowledges with a self-deprecating smile that his youthful attempt at a career in rock ’n’ roll was stymied by a “complete lack of musical talent.” But music did play an important part in his path to becoming a neuroscientist.

“One of the things I got from punk rock,” he says, “was a really deep belief in not taking things at face value, in questioning assumptions about how society works, how politics work, about how we live our lives—everything, right?”

Howard’s drive to test basic hypotheses eventually led him to earn a BA in physics at Rutgers. He found he wasn’t interested in potential research topics like high-temperature superconductivity, “but I was really, really interested in the mind and the brain,” he says, which led him to neuroscience and a PhD from Brandeis before coming to BU in 2001.

Since joining the College of Arts & Sciences psychological and brain sciences department in 2011, he has been working on projects involving new mathematical models and behavioral and computational tools to better understand the mechanisms of memory and how the brain works.

“We are trying to address really fundamental questions like, how do we experience the flow of time,” he says.

Recognized as one of the top researchers in bridging cognition and systems-level neuroscience and a recipient of numerous National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, Howard is among eight Charles River Campus faculty members who have been promoted to full professor.

“I’m trying to develop a theoretical physics for the brain and the mind. I’m not saying we’ve achieved that goal,” he says, “but I was very impressed by the elegance of theoretical physics and the level of really deep insight you get from having a small number of equations describing a lot of phenomena.”

Scientists typically make a mathematical model of an individual neuron, then put many of them together to see what they do, he explains. The approach in his Theoretical Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory is different: there, he and his researchers work out equations that describe millions of neurons in aggregate, using input from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, suggesting how the brain ought to work. “Then we try to figure out if the brain actually exhibits those properties, and if it does, how it could accomplish those computations,” he says.

A key focus of Howard’s research is how the brain represents space and time, which he and his colleagues believe is fundamental to cognition. “We just completed a set of experiments that judge our memory for the past,” he says. The results were “consistent with the idea that your memory is laid out on sort of a timeline. And what you do when you remember stuff—it’s as if you were looking along some internal dimension.” They are now constructing an experiment to see if anticipation of future events works in a similar way.

He emphasizes that they haven’t answered the questions: “We’ve posed the problems in a different way than I think most people studying the brain have, and I think we have a really nice hypothesis for a bunch of stuff. But those hypotheses have not yet been thoroughly tested.”

Another faculty member promoted to full professor is Renée Spencer, a School of Social Work professor of human behavior in the social environment and department chair. Her research focuses on mentoring: “Relationships with adults that promote good development for young people,” she says.

Mentoring dates back to the days of the ancient Greeks, she notes, but studying it is relatively new. Studies have shown that children with mentors do better educationally and emotionally than those without them. “But beyond that, what makes for a good relationship between an adult and a younger person?” she asks. Spencer joined BU in 2002, after earning a BA in psychology from Austin College, an MS in social work from the University of Texas at Austin, and an EdD in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Her study subjects range from the Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentoring program to others for US military dependents and one that has young people help identify and recruit their own mentors. Most of the mentees are disadvantaged, economically or otherwise. “I talk to mentors, youths, their parents or guardians, and program staff about their experiences,” says Spencer, who has received major grants supporting her research from federal institutions, including the US Departments of Justice and of Education.

A baseline for effective mentoring seems to be that the relationship lasts at least a year,” she says, “and that it becomes meaningful from the young person’s perspective, not just the mentor’s. In national studies of mentoring, when the relationship ended before the initial time commitment was met, those young people looked worse than the control group—kids who didn’t get mentors at all.” The fallout included self-esteem problems and increased alcohol abuse.

“That really troubled me, the sense that mentoring is not just a benign intervention, and you really do want to get it right,” she says. “That’s been the focus of my research: what does it take to get mentoring right?”

First and foremost, Spencer says, is that the mentor must move from an altruistic but general commitment to mentoring to having a specific commitment to an individual child.

“There’s one mentor in my study, a PhD student who had dreamed of studying with his mentee and got matched with a kid who hated school, didn’t even want to talk about school,” she says. “So the mentor learned to let that go. He still asked about school once a week, but then he’d let it drop. And he started using that opportunity to insert little tidbits of advice, like, ‘If you write your homework assignments down, it really helps.’ And that worked, and so the mentor became more trustworthy to the child.

“By the time I interviewed them, four years into their match, they were studying together,” Spencer says.

“The caliber of scholarship and practical research advances realized each day by our talented faculty is remarkable, and the cohort of faculty who have recently been promoted to the rank of professor are clear examples of this excellence,” says Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer.

“From shaping our conception of human memory and improving our ability to interpret other cultures to understanding the processes at work in effective youth mentoring relationships, these faculty members are making essential contributions to their fields and inspiring a new generation of scholars and professionals,” Morrison says.

As well as Marc Howard and Renée Spencer, the Charles River Campus faculty promoted to full professor are:

Anatoli Polkovnikov, CAS professor of physics and ENG professor of materials science & engineering

Polkovnikov studies nonequilibrium systems, merging atomic, molecular, optical, and condensed matter physics, and quantum information science to better understand various properties of interacting many-particle systems. He has published dozens of widely cited papers in journals such as Nature and PNAS and has been named a Sloan Research Fellow and a Simons Fellow in Theoretical Physics. His research is funded by the NSF and the US Army Research Laboratory.

Björn Reinhard, CAS professor of chemistry and ENG professor of materials science & engineering

A specialist in plasmonics research, Reinhard has discovered new applications at the interface of nanotechnology and biological systems to help profile tumor cells, manipulate optical energy, and enhance the understanding of biological systems at the cellular level. The recipient of an NSF CAREER Award, Reinhard has served as a principal or coinvestigator on numerous grants funded by the NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Army Research Laboratory, and his research has been cited nearly 3,400 times.

Karen Warkentin, CAS professor of biology

Evolutionary biology has been the focus of Warkentin’s research, which examines the ability of organisms to adapt to variable environments through changes in behavior, physiology, and development. Credited with initiating an entirely new subfield of behavioral ecology known as environmentally cued hatching, she holds leadership positions in numerous scientific societies, has published dozens of articles in journals bridging multiple disciplines, and has secured significant NSF grants supporting her research.

Catherine Vance Yeh, CAS professor of modern languages and comparative literature

Yeh’s field of specialization is 19th- and 20th-century Chinese literary, media, and visual culture, exploring the social impact of entertainment culture and literature in late imperial and Republican era China. She is currently director of the Pardee School of Global Studies Center for the Study of Asia. Her books include The Chinese Political Novel: Migration of a World Genre (Harvard University Press, 2015) and Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals and Entertainment Culture, 1850–1910 (University of Washington Press, 2006), and she has a forthcoming project on the use of female impersonators in Chinese theater from the 1910s to the 1930s.

Dimitrije Stamenovic, College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering and professor of materials science & engineering

Stamenovic specializes in theoretical cell mechanics, focusing on the biomechanics of the lung, as well as development of a pneumatic knee brace capable of relieving symptoms of osteoarthritis. He holds a patent for his research and has secured substantial grant funding. He is the author of 8 book chapters and more than 90 frequently cited journal articles. He received the ENG biomedical engineering department’s Teacher of the Year Award in 2004.

Dirk Hackbarth, Questrom School of Business professor of finance

Hackbarth is a specialist in corporate finance, creating and calibrating dynamic models applicable to capital structure, investment behavior, and mergers and acquisitions. A Dean’s Research Scholar, Hackbarth is an associate editor of the scholarly journal Management Science, and has received its Distinguished Service Award.