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NSF awards Illinois $3M for interdisciplinary graduate student training

BY Samantha Jones Toal

The National Science Foundation recently granted the University of Illinois $3 million for an interdisciplinary graduate student training program to help form new insight on the brain—and to expand participation in the field of brain science itself.

Sixty graduate students from across campus will participate in the five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Traineeship, led by Martha Gillette, professor of cell and developmental biology and director of the Neuroscience Program. HyunJoon Kong, professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, is the lead co-principal investigator.

The project’s primary goal is to provide students with an immersive research experience that blends techniques from multiple disciplines to better understand the many aspects of the human body’s most complex organ. 

The program will teach students to use and understand miniature brain machinery critical to examining and regulating brain activities. It’s also designed to increase the participation of women, underrepresented minorities, and students with disabilities in the field of brain science. 

A third goal is to improve scientists’ communication skills with the public. 

“This is a training initiative between neuroscience and engineering. It’s building on some of the new technologies in engineering, but it’s focused on better understanding the brain,” Gillette said. “It’s exciting because it’s going to let us do new things and train graduate students in new ways.”

Students will come from several departments across campus, including neuroscience, cell and developmental biology, molecular and integrative physiology, chemistry, psychology, chemical and biomolecular engineering, bioengineering, and electrical and computer engineering.

The training program will bridge two research paradigms about the brain: cognitive and behavioral studies, including the use of bioimaging and computational tools to understand adaptation, decision-making, psychology, and learning of an individual; and cell and tissue studies, with a focus on altering cell activity through a variety of methods. 

To meet these goals, the program will guide graduate students through specialized courses to broaden their knowledge beyond their own specific fields. Training courses will address behavior and the development of the nervous system as well as engineering, biological, and psychological perspectives on how brain activity can be modified. 

The U of I project was one of only three proposals aimed at understanding the brain selected for this particular NSF project, out of a large national competition. Co-directors on the project include Rashid Bashir, professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering and head of the Department of Bioengineering; Neal Cohen, professor of psychology; and Jonathan Sweedler, professor of chemistry.

Students also will have opportunities to visit and work with the laboratories of international partners, including the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology of A*STAR (Singapore), the Biomedical Research Institute of the Korean Institute of Science and Technology (S. Korea), the University of Tokyo (Japan), the University of Okayama (Japan), the University of Birmingham (U.K.), and the Johannes Gutenberg-University at Mainz (Germany).

While the funding mainly contributes to a training program for graduate students, the project also has a research component.  Gillette expects the project to advance a relatively new field of study regarding how, through cross-talking, groups of cells behave differently than the entity that they’re part of.

“The idea of using these self-organizing neuron preparations is new,” Gillette said. “It’s new enough that over the five years of the grant and training period, it will really develop a lot, especially with the technologies we have.”

The U of I’s interdisciplinary approach fits with the NSF’s focus for the training program.

"Integration of research and education through interdisciplinary training will prepare a workforce that undertakes scientific challenges in innovative ways," said Dean Evasius, director of the NSF Division of Graduate Education. "The NSF Research Traineeship awards will ensure that today's graduate students are prepared to pursue cutting-edge research and solve the complex problems of tomorrow."

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