Brains Shed Light on the Stars

Interdisciplinary initiative pioneers new field of study

Unnamed photo
Alee Lockman

Cognitive scientists and philosophers have long studied the brain as a window to another world.

But Harvard astronomer Michelle A. Borkin ’06 has found that to better understand other worlds, scientists should look at them like they would a brain.

Borkin has spent her fledgling scientific career at Harvard’s new Initiative for Innovative Computing (IIC), applying three-dimensional brain imaging techniques to her study of newborn stars in outer space.

In the process, colleagues say Borkin and the rest of the IIC’s Astronomical Medicine team have united two otherwise unrelated fields to create a new discipline—one that Borkin is poised to pioneer.

And Borkin’s research represents the fruits of the University’s new push to break down disciplinary boundaries and foster collaboration among its communities of scientists.

SQUIRTING STARS

Borkin is a part of the Astronomical Medicine team—composed of seven researchers—whose project is to chart and analyze streams of stellar mass emanating from new stars in the star-forming region called Perseus.

“When new stars form, they have too much [mass],” says Alyssa A. Goodman, a professor of astronomy and director of the IIC.

The excess mass gives a nascent star too much angular momentum, preventing it from collapsing on itself to begin the process of nuclear fusion.

“One way to get rid of angular momentum very efficiently is to squirt material out the poles of a rotating system,” says Goodman. Goodman and Borkin’s research focuses on counting and measuring these outflows.

One difficulty in analyzing huge sets of astronomical data like Borkin’s is that they are often viewed two-dimensionally, akin to the way three-dimensional visual information is translated into two dimensions by the human eye. This can be limiting for astronomers, who must take into account dimensions other than length and width like depth and velocity, according to Goodman.

“It’s like looking at individual MRI slices of somebody’s brain without ever having known what a human brain looked like in the first place,” Goodman says.

MAKING 2D INTO 3D

In 2005, Goodman presented this problem at a National Institute of Health conference.

“After the talk, this guy who I didn’t know comes up to me and says, ‘I can solve your problem,’” says Goodman.

“This guy” was Michael W. Halle, the director of the Surgical Planning Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a Harvard Medical School (HMS) instructor in radiology.

Radiologists are able to stitch together series of two-dimensional images into a three-dimensional rendering using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and Halle’s idea was to apply these techniques to the field of astronomy.

“It’s basically using the technology to look at somebody’s brain and turning it outward to look at stars,” says Borkin.

Goodman pitched the idea as a senior thesis topic to Borkin, whom she had met when Borkin was still in high school and offered to design Goodman’s Web pages.

Borkin says that Goodman’s proposal interested her even though the topic didn’t fall in the traditional bounds of her area of study.

“I’ve always loved interdisciplinary work. I’ve always loved working in difference sciences, so this is perfect,” Borkin says. “I get to learn a new science.”

In her thesis, Borkin ended up discovering a multitude of new outflows in the Perseus region, and her work eventually evolved into a full-fledged interdisciplinary research project. Subsequent research has allowed the team, which has grown to seven members plus several other affiliated researchers, to double the number of known stellar outflows in Perseus.

It has also broadly transformed current astronomical understanding of star-forming regions by providing a more accurate picture of other stellar phenomena—such as spherical winds from newborn stars.

Goodman says that Borkin, the scholar of newborn stars, is set to be a pioneer in a field that is so new that “no one knows what to call it yet.”

“The thought is that now that she’s spent two years as a research assistant, we’re going to send her off on her way so that she can be one of the founding people of this new field,” Goodman says.

‘SWITZERLAND’

Borkin’s trajectory at the IIC is just one example of a wider pattern of interdisciplinary science at Harvard.

The IIC was one of several initiatives suggested in 2005 by the University’s Task Force on Science and Technology, which was convened by the office of Provost Steven E. Hyman.

The provost’s office provided seed money for the IIC and oversees its administration in keeping with its role as an incubator for interfaculty efforts, according to Kathleen M. Buckley ’74, the associate provost for science.

“I like to call us Switzerland—it’s a neutral place, where two schools, who might have sort of different agendas but want to do something together,” Buckley said in October about the collaboration.

The IIC, a joint Medical School-Faculty of Arts and Sciences venture, is the site of twenty distinct interdisciplinary projects, each centered on sharing computational and analytic methods among disciplines as varied as the social sciences, genetics, and statistics.

For Borkin’s part, she has not only reaped the benefits of sharing techniques, but is also helping her colleagues.

Computational methods honed by astronomers has proven helpful to researchers in fields like genetics, who increasingly require tools to effectively crunch huge sets of data.

“Astrophysicists can provide a unique and extensive perspective on how to make sense of these large data sets, in part because we have been doing it for so long,” Borkin says.

—Staff writer H. K. Seo can be reached at hkseo@fas.harvard.edu.

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