The final frontier in biomedical science: Brown faculty, staff and students at the Carney Institute for Brain Science work to discover and innovate in brain science and apply that knowledge to benefit society. Nick Dentamaro / Brown University

Faculty and student voices: Brown's brain scientists talk about the brain as 'final frontier'

Through interviews, faculty and students share in their own words how the distinctive approach to research at Brown is unlocking the complexity of the brain.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — At Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science(named for donors who in April 2018 gave a $100 million gift to Brown to advance brain science) unraveling the mysteries of the brain is a shared commitment — and a shared passion. Faculty, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduates work together to map cells and connections, decode signals, and mimic and repair the complex functions of the nervous system, seeking therapies and cures.

Here, we showcase excerpts of conversations with researchers and students of the Carney Institute for Brain Science. We asked them what excites them about brain science, why they chose to conduct research at Brown, and how Brown’s unique approach to collaborative problem-solving is unlocking and explaining the complexity of the brain.

Leigh Hochberg 
Professor of Engineering

We’re at an incredible time in understanding the nervous system. It continues to be our students — our undergraduates and grad students — who develop the most novel hypotheses, who ask the most intriguing questions that we all begin to answer, and then pause when we realize that we don’t actually know the answer. That drives our research in a direction that we would have never imagined. And, hopefully, it’s going to allow us to restore mobility, restore communication, for people with paralysis.

BrainGate is an incredible example of basic science that started here at Brown, a fundamental understanding of the nervous system and of movement, and translating that all the way through to clinical trials and, hopefully, to a device that will one day restore the ability to communicate and to move. To do all of that, from A to Z, to have that depth of expertise in neuroscience and engineering and applied mathematics and computer science — there are very few places in the world that can do that. We’re very lucky that we can do that here at Brown.

Amanda Duffy
Ph.D. student in neuroscience (and Class of 2009 graduate)

One of the main strengths of the faculty is that they’re extremely invested in their students as well as their research.

People who are interested in cognitive neuroscience, for example, can work with people who are very interested in computer science, or who are very interested in cell and molecular or behavioral neuroscience. [We] provide an opportunity for people to come together.

Belinda Mahama
Ph.D. student in neuroscience

My research is collaborative in the sense that if I want to try a new technique, [Brown] has the mentors and funding to help me... It gives a lot of aspiring scientists the chance to try out their ideas without fear of not having the support that they need. And it provides the space for creativity.

Michael Frank
Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences

We’re thinking about what is the brain trying to achieve: How does it achieve it?

When it comes to the brain, the thing that’s exciting is that at some point, it always feels like, even if you study this for years and you think of the brain as a machine, as a computational operation, at some point it feels a little bit magical.

Anne Hart
Professor of Neuroscience

The most efficient and fastest way to figure things out is often to work with others who are experts in their own fields, to talk to each other and to share our strengths and come up with new and novel ways to tackle problems. The ability to work with people who want to collaborate and who are good at talking to others is critical.

I look at our work on ALS now, where we have... clinical researchers who can work together across systems, using the strengths of each one, and people who are willing to work together, to move our understanding of this disease forward to try and figure out what are the right targets for drugs, figure out why neurons die... And I see that we could replicate that for sleep, for other diseases, for understanding consciousness, for understanding learning and memory. Then we’ll make leaps forward.

Valerie Estela
Ph.D. student in neuroscience

I think that there are cures for a lot of degenerative diseases out there — Alzheimer’s disease and ALS, and Christensen’s disease and Fragile X syndrome, and tons of things that are being researched at Brown. I think they have cures out there. And I think that the more people you have working on them together, helping each other and looking at things from different angles and coming together to create a full body of research about something, is how we’re going to find those cures.

Judy Liu
Assistant Professor of Neurology, Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry

I work on epilepsy research... One of the main reasons I came to Brown is because there is really excellent science research. I think of basic science as foundational... The other thing about Brown is that it’s very inclusive, so that the clinicians at Brown, who are also at Lifespan hospitals, are actually involved in the research.

Christopher Moore
Professor of Neuroscience
Associate Director of the Carney Institute for Brain Science

Brain science is inherently a question, not a discipline. Brain science inherently has to be opportunistic and go to whatever demand the question demands. That’s exactly what [we] support — that ability to be agile in allowing people to go to places they didn’t know the research would take them.

[Our students] tend to be the kind of students that like to go across borders. They like to live between labs; they like to learn some math, bring the math back to the experimental lab and vice versa. They tend to be exactly the kind of students that want to take the right kind of risks.

Now, how do you get to talk to people that don’t do exactly what you do? You need an environment that supports that. Brown not only has people that are really, really smart colleagues, but they’re actually collegial. They want to talk. They want you in the same room. They want to deal with half-baked ideas and make them fully baked.

Maya Singh ’19
Member of Rebecca Burwell’s lab in Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences

I have been really impressed by the accessibility of many professors in brain science at Brown and just their willingness to collaborate and discuss, especially with young scientists like myself. I found that to be probably one of the most motivating factors to continue going forward.

As a contemplative studies concentrator, getting exposure to cognitive neuroscience research is pretty incredible. There are so many people trying to make links between different fields, and that’s something I really love about Brown.

Diane Lipscombe
Professor of Neuroscience

Director of the Carney Institute for Brain Science

To understand the human brain is, for me and for many of my colleagues, the final frontier. We’re in an incredible moment in time right now in brain science. The time is now. There is no time to wait.

Brown is a unique and special place, regardless of what your interest is in the brain. So, if you’re interested in building machines that mimic the brain, this is the place to do that, because our engineers are working very closely with neuroscientists. We don’t see boundaries; we just see our colleagues and we don’t care where they are, we don’t care what department they’re in. There are literally no boundaries for working across disciplines, which is where the exciting things happen, at that interface between engineering and neuroscience, or applied math and engineering, computer science and neuroscience, or cognitive linguistics and neuroscience.