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Qais Akbar Omar (GRS’16), a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program, has published a much-praised memoir, A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story. He recalls how the violence and tumult of civil war jolted his family, who, despite losing relatives, their home, and possessions, continued to nurture his wish to attend a university.

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A Note from Dean Cudd – Neuroscience: Probing Minds, Brains, and Behavior

February 28th, 2017

Dean Cudd blog post imageScientists and philosophers have long wondered about how our minds work. How we can be physically embodied, consciously thinking creatures? What accounts for our ability to act seemingly intentionally, while also unintentionally behaving in ways that we consciously abjure? While Aristotle thought that the heart was the seat of intelligence, other ancient Greek scientists were beginning to figure out that the brain was responsible for sense perception and other cognitive functions. We now know the brain accounts for our ability to think, plan, act, remember, perceive, and emote, and that these functions emerge from patterns of electrical pulses through a complicated network of neurons. But precisely how that happens is still unclear: predicting behavior and disease based on observed physical states of neurons is the grand challenge of modern brain science. Boston University has made significant investments in neuroscience graduate and undergraduate programs. As a result, the study of the brain at BU is a booming enterprise, already world class, and poised to be at the very top.

Scientists and scholars in the College of Arts & Sciences address the challenge of understanding the brain through multiple disciplinary perspectives, tools, and models. The Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences (PBS) includes some of the world’s leading neuroscientists, several of whom will be moving into the brand new Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering (CILSE) in March. This facility will house a state-of-the-art Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner in the Neuroimaging Center, directed by Chantal Stern. Located nearby will be the labs of Michael Hasselmo, director of the Center for Systems Neuroscience, and William Fairfield Warren Professor Howard Eichenbaum, who directs the Center for Memory and Brain. As Hasselmo explains, “increasingly powerful imaging now allows researchers to scan brain structures with exquisite detail and make surprising discoveries about how neurons grow, interact, and die.” PBS has many other researchers studying the brain and its functions and malfunctions, and now outpaces all other natural science departments in research funding. The study of the brain is in great student demand: Since its founding in 2008, the neuroscience major has grown to 350 students.

Other outstanding neuroscientists hold appointments in biology. Timothy Gardner’s work to understand at a neuronal level how birds learn and remember songs has led him to invent devices to collect data from the brains of finches while they carry on their daily existence. Biologist Angela Ho studies neural development in order to understand the causes of learning disabilities in children, as well as the biology of neurodegeneration that leads to Alzheimer’s Disease.

One challenge for researchers of the brain is that the immense volume of data produced by new imaging and recording technologies requires new kinds of analysis, calling for collaboration among physicists, mathematicians, and neuroscientists. Mathematician and William Fairfield Warren Professor Nancy Kopell directs the Cognitive Rhythms Collaborative, a group of mathematicians and scientists who work together to advance our understanding of the brain dynamics underlying cognitive functions such as sensory processing, attention, learning, memory, and motor planning. Mark Kramer works with statistician Uri Eden to develop network models to map the rhythms of epileptic seizures in order to find ways of controlling them in the most intractable cases. Stephen Grossberg, also a mathematician, works on what philosophers dubbed “the hard problem of consciousness,” the problem of explaining our phenomenal experiences, like the quality of redness, or the sound of a clarinet. He has proposed a mathematical theory that explains how neural mechanisms and dynamical brain states give rise to subjective properties of individual conscious experiences.

As can be seen in the work of Grossberg, the impact of advances in neuroscience is not limited to the natural sciences and psychology. His work connects with that of philosopher Walter Hopp, whose research aims to better describe the phenomenology of conscious experience. And the work on neuroscience at BU is certainly not limited to CAS; scientists in Engineering, Sargent College, and the Medical Campus–with which the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences runs the Graduate Program for Neuroscience–are also doing important work and often collaborating with CAS faculty to make discoveries about the brain and to invent new therapies to treat brain diseases and behavioral problems. Through the work of our faculty and students, BU is among the world leaders in neuroscience research.

This is the fourth of several dean’s notes in which I discuss five key priorities that will define the future of the Arts & Sciences at BU. These priorities inform our strategy for growth and development of faculty, degree programs, research collaborations, and fundraising. They recognize existing faculty strengths and respond to global challenges and opportunities, as well as student interest. Taken together, these priorities offer opportunities for faculty and departments to build on collective strengths in ways that best fit their disciplinary assets, but encourage interdisciplinary discovery. These priorities are:

  • Embracing the evolving powers of data analytics and infusing the disciplines of the college—from the humanities to the natural sciences—with the opportunities presented by data science.
  • Renewing our support for the humanities as a crucial component of a liberal education and critical perspective on our technological age.
  • Accelerating our strong neuroscience programs so that we can map the brain to better understand the neural bases of behavior and disease.
  • Enabling BU to play an important part in humankind’s efforts to understand, mitigate, and adjust to climate change and create sustainable ways of life.

Understanding the roots of inequality and the requirements of justice, and embracing our special role as educators in creating social mobility by increasing the accessibility of a BU education for talented students regardless of family income.

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