Interview with Dennis Choi: Developing the Neuroscience Initiative

By David Ehrlich

Originally published February 2009.

The Neuroscience Initiative is an Emory-wide program dedicated to understanding the mind, its emergence from the brain, its nature, and its social interfaces. It “also seeks to apply this understanding to the benefit of society, including the promotion of nervous system health and the teaching of others so that they will carry on this mission.” Last month, Dr. Choi reported on the Initiative’s progress and its impact on the Neuroscience Graduate program.  

Dr. Dennis Choi
Dr. Dennis Choi
David Ehrlich
David Ehrlich

 Central Sulcus: What are the concrete signs of progress for the Neuroscience Initiative?

Dennis Choi: Although funding for the university-wide Neurosciences Initiative was begun only in January of 2008, quite a lot is now in play. The Initiative adopted an inclusive definition of the neurosciences; this broad definition consists of about 440 Emory faculty, based in 31 departments and 7 schools.

The Initiative has already helped bring various subsets of this community together in planning discussions, retreats, seminars, roundtables, and journal clubs. A community-wide scientific mini-retreat was held Jan 24, 2009.

A major symposium on movement disorders honoring Mahlon Delong is planned for next spring (April 17, 2009). Lunch meetings are being held monthly; all neurosciences faculty are invited and furthermore encouraged to bring a trainee, so over time we hope many neuroscience graduate students will be able to join in. We have set up an eRoom platform to support committee planning and an event calendar (on Blackboard: https://classes.emory.edu, use the calendar link under “Tools”); work is in progress to establish an Initiative website and an “always-on” video link between Yerkes and the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building. The Initiative’s Executive Committee has identified the encouragement of interdisciplinary scholarship as a top priority, and has launched a seed grants program to help fund promising cross-cutting explorations. In addition, Greg Berns and Mary Horton have agreed to develop and lead a new multilevel interdisciplinary training program that will support the studies of several new “Scholar” positions within undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral ranks. Several months ago the Initiative joined forces with the Department of Psychiatry, the Schools of Business and Medicine, and the College, to support the formation of an exciting new Center for Neuropolicy led by Greg Berns.

The clinical component of the Initiative, the Comprehensive Neuroscience Center (CNC) within the Woodruff Health Sciences, has been funded since 2006, so things are further along. Ed Craighead was recruited to the Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology to establish, de novo, the Childhood and Adolescent Mood Disorders Program (CAMP). The number of patients seen in this important new program increased by 36% in the first half of 2008 over 2007. The program has begun its first clinical trial of therapeutic approaches, and a large P20 grant application has been submitted to NIMH. Efforts are also underway within the CNC to strengthen and integrate clinical and research programs in the areas of Alzheimer’s disease, movement disorders, stroke, and sleep.

To date, the Initiative and its CNC has facilitated the hiring of 14 new Emory faculty, at ranks from Lecturer to Professor. Lastly, the Initiative has hired a capable Administrator (Emily Vander Wiele) and recruited Leigh Hurt to lead neurosciences development within the context of the University’s ongoing capital campaign. Leigh now aids the coordination of relevant fundraising efforts being carried out by development officers in different departments or units within the University. Raising philanthropic support is of course essential to the Initiative’s longer term prospects for success.

CS: What expectations can Emory’s neuroscience community reasonably place on the Initiative?

DC: For the Initiative to add value, community members have to engage. Reach out to colleagues in other parts of the University, share ideas, and identify new ways to advance our research, teaching, or clinical care missions. Then, work with me and other members of the Initiative’s committees to find ways to make things happen. The Initiative still has a modest pot of uncommitted funds that we can spoon out sparingly to help bring our best ideas to fruition.

CS: The Neuroscience Initiative emphasizes education of the public. Do you foresee a specific role for graduate students as public liaisons?

DC: The Initiative hopes to contribute to public education as manpower and resources permit. One planned activity (as part of the DeLong celebration and in partnership with the Dana Foundation) will be a “town hall” meeting that will bring the public together with several expert neuroscientists and a caregiver to discuss neurodegenerative diseases and successful cognitive aging.

Graduate students can play a key role as scientific ambassadors to the public. The Initiative, and in particular its Education Committee led by Yoland Smith and Paul Lennard, is interested in working with the Atlanta Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) and the regional Center for Behavioral Neuroscience to facilitate such activity. Outreach to K-12 classrooms during “Brain Awareness Week” is an example of a current SFN (and Dana Foundation) program that typically has substantial graduate student participation.

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