NSF Training Grant Funds New Neurophotonics Initiative Using Light to Explore the Brain

By Sara Cody

Interdisciplinary research that uses light to understand how the brain functions will receive a major boost under a new $2.9 million National Science Foundation Research Traineeship grant announced recently. The five-year grant  will allow the establishment of a new graduate-level program of study that focuses on understanding and influencing brain function using light.

“Our quest to understand how neural activities at the cellular scale drive computation, behavior, and psychology is motivated not only by curiosity, but also by our desire to understand and treat brain diseases that involve disruptions or deterioration of neural circuitry – including Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis,” said Professor Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE), director of the Photonics Center and the grant’s principal investigator. “A rapidly evolving frontier in this area of research is the use of light to study, control, and image neurons and neural circuits.”

The NSF selected only 16 projects for the prestigious program, with the neurophotonics program only one of two focusing exclusively understanding the brain. According to program Director and Research Assistant Professor Helen Fawcett (ME), BU is already a national leader in this area thanks to strong academic programs in neuroscience, biomedical engineering and photonics, as well as world-class research centers that focus this area.

“Our researchers in these areas have made profound discoveries, developed new tools, and catalyzed emerging markets in these disciplines,” says Fawcett. “There is no better place in the world to pursue research opportunities and career paths focused on understanding brain structure and function.”

In addition to the rigorous academic program and collaborative environment between world-class researchers, Fawcett noted that one of the most important components for their successful application was the focus on promoting diversity within the new discipline.

“The key to our success, according to the debriefing we received from NSF, was our strong focus on immersive education of a diverse community of students in this emerging area of research,” said Fawcett. “In particular, we committed to supporting a substantial number of trainees who are women or underrepresented minorities. The reviewers noted that we were already a highly effective group of researchers committed to this exciting field, and hoped that an NRT traineeship grant would help us to expand workforce diversity and serve as a national model for graduate education in the interdisciplinary field.”

In addition to working in conjunction with the mission of the Business Innovation Center, the program aligns with the Photonics Center’s NSF-funded Industry/University Cooperative Research Center on Biophotonics Sensors and Systems, which connects neurophotonics faculty with leading industry researchers to pursue applied research based on academic discoveries. The program will be added to the new National Science Foundation Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate award that seeks to advance knowledge and improve pathways to the professoriate and success for historically underrepresented minority students

“The NSF grant recognizes our commitment to continuing to diversify our training programs in science and engineering,” says Professor Catherine Klapperich (BME, ME, MSE), associate dean for research. “It is very exciting because the program will build on the longstanding strengths at BU in photonics and neuroscience.”