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New Center To Connect FAS Neurosciences

By Jessica E. Vascellaro, Crimson Staff Writer

In the latest boost to science at the College, the creation of an interdisciplinary Center for Systems Neurosciences will be officially announced in the next few weeks.

With new laboratories in the North Yard and 10 new faculty appointments, professors say the center will reshape science within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) by integrating the study of neurons, nervous systems and cognition across multiple fields.

“The center will have a big role to play in changing the curriculum,” said Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Markus Meister. “You can imagine that with 10 additional faculty to teach neuroscience the curriculum will look very different from the way it looks now.”

At a time when Kirby has just begun to discuss which departments need to expand, an allotment of 10 new appointments seems to indicate a substantial commitment to the life sciences.

This figure would fill almost a sixth of the roughly 60-70 professors he has pledged to add to FAS over the next decade.

In 1999 Meister and Pierce Professor of Psychology Ken Nakayama proposed the initiative to then-Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles. With a mission statement and funds for faculty recruitment, the center has been operating on a small scale for the past two years.

But pending their choice for director’s acceptance—an unnamed candidate from outside the University has been offered the position—the program will be fully launched within weeks and will be backed by fresh funds from Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby.

“At the moment it is a virtual center,” Harvard College Professor Richard M. Losick said, “but people are already being recruited across one or another departments.”

The new center will work with departments to attract professors who study nervous systems and human and animal cognition from the cellular to the evolutionary level. According to Meister, the center would fund half of each professor’s salary, with the other half coming from the affiliated FAS department.

Both Kirby and University President Lawrence H. Summers have frequently maintained that growth in the sciences is a top University priority. Last week Summers championed the University’s current biomedical initiatives at the opening of a new $260 million research facility at Harvard Medical School.

While incorporating research conducted throughout the University, the focus of the systems neuroscience center will integrate research done across FAS departments such as biology, psychology and physics.

According to Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, who arrived this year from MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, the interdisciplinary approach is necessary to bring FAS sciences up to speed.

“Ideally there should be collaboration between wet wear—the neurons and molecules—and what the whole brain does,” he said. “Other than the Medical School, which has some world-class neuroscientists, compared to other universities with strong biology programs, Harvard has some catching up to do.”

Pinker said his work will be only tangentially related to the initiative, as he primarily focuses on the study of human language—a subject he said is not usually included in systems neuroscience. But he maintained that Harvard’s expansion in the field is exciting and hopes to benefit from its success.

“It is indirectly relevant nowadays because graduate students doing work in psychology are expected to have a good dose of neuroscience, and I think that the best programs have that connection,” he said.

—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at vascell@fas.harvard.edu.

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