Join the discussion
interdisciplinarity is . . . in some ways just more work.
Insel, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Center for
these days . . . involves one's own personal style of eclecticism
A. Paul, Candler Professor and Chair, The Graduate Institute
of the Liberal Arts
Academic Exchange February/March
2000 Contents Page
When Sigmund Freud died in 1939, the poet W.
H. Auden memorialized him not as a man but as a "whole climate
of opinion." In recent decades, however, scientific insights
into the physiological roots of behavior have altered that intellectual
climate drastically. As imaging technology pinpoints areas of
the brain involved in particular behaviors, the Human Genome
Project approaches its goal of identifying every human gene.
Meanwhile, discoveries in molecular biology have fueled the rise
of evolutionary psychology, catapulting books like How the Mind
Works, by mit professor Steven Pinker, onto the bestseller list.
Even love, fear, and memory--the accustomed stuff of humanistic
inquiry--are now being tracked in laboratories.
WIDE AND INCH DEEP?
In the midst of this storm of change, the National Science Foundation
has awarded $20 million--the largest grant ever received at Emory--to
a consortium of sixty scientists from Emory and other Atlanta
institutions to investigate the links between biology and behavior.
Psychiatry professor Tom Insel, who recently stepped down as
director of Yerkes to take the helm of the new Center for Behavioral
Neuroscience (CBN), can't predict all the paths the center's
research will take. But he does think the center will generate
new--and some would suggest problematic--approaches to neuroscience.
The CBN's immediate goal
is less about specific projects and more about "creating
a fertile environment for research" through synergistic
interdisciplinary and inter-institutional "collaboratories,"
according to Georgia State biologist Elliott Albers, a co-director
of the CBN. By departing from the traditional, single-lab structure,
the CBN's collaboratories aim to bring together a great variety
of researchers, including psychiatrists, geneticists, and biologists.
This full house, however, raises concerns about how to prevent
cross-disciplinary excitement from devolving into chaos.
"There is a risk of being a mile wide and an inch deep,"
acknowledges Insel, whose comment is part of a longer interview.
"I worry about the project that has ten investigators but
no one who really knows what's going on. Even though we like
to think it is an opportunity for new discoveries--and I think
it is--goodinterdisciplinarity is also incredibly time-consuming."
Insel predicts the reward for this investment in interdisciplinarity
will be advances in functional genomics, the understanding of
how genes actually work. While the nineties were celebrated as
"the decade of the brain," he christens the next ten
years as the "decade of the genome." Though the mapping
of the genome has received great hype, it won't be that helpful,
warns Insel. "It's like having the abc's: now we need to
write the essays." Through the CBN, researchers from Emory,
Georgia Tech, Morehouse, Georgia State, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta
will begin those compositions by investigating how brain mechanisms
influence and are influenced by complex behaviors. Most importantly,
those scientists will examine behaviors such as fear, affiliation,
and aggression across a range of species.
By abandoning the traditional paradigm of studying only one species,
the center hopes to discover fundamental principles of behavior
sculpted by evolution. For example, does serotonin control aggression
in mammals as it appears to in invertebrates? The answer will
tell us more about human evolution as well as illuminate the
complexity of the relationship between biology and behavior.
For Emory psychiatry professor Michael Davis, this chance to
translate his research on fear from rats to non-human primates
offers a window onto the role of the human cortex in turning
a frightening experience into an unshakable memory. While some
memories, like the sensation of touching a hot stove, protect
people from further harm, other memories, like the image of seeing
a friend shot in war, can return repeatedly, actually causing
more damage. Since such memories are "enormously difficult
to erase," says Davis, "our lab will study what parts
of the brain are involved in overcoming fear."
While the organizational
hurdles before the CBN are daunting, the center's very genesis
reveals a knack for orchestration. A friendship between Albers
and Insel (and their post-docs) sparked the idea for the center
while an Atlanta chapter of the Society for Neuroscience brought
more researchers together. When the National Science Foundation
heightened its emphasis on education and minority recruitment
in its new wave of Science and Technology Centers, Insel and
his colleagues realized Atlanta, with its array of historically
black institutions, afforded a unique opportunity.
Education--creating a premier graduate neuroscience program,
enhancing undergraduate programs, and enriching k12 science
education in Georgia--is a key aspect of the CBN's mission, alongside
scientific discovery and technology transfer. The center's interinstitutional
undergraduate major and graduate program will enable students
to take classes at any of the CBN's schools. Working out the
educational collaboration may prove even trickier, though, than
the center's primary research questions. Emory's Pat Marsteller,
senior lecturer in biology and a CBN co-director, points out
are almost no precedents for such ambitious collaboration on
the undergraduate level. Recognizing the gulf in cultures between
institutions, Marsteller says, "we have even been thinking
about a 'semester abroad' exchange plan" to help students
from Emory or from Morehouse to venture into the other world
just across town.
Besides removing institutional barriers, the CBN also plans to
bridge some of the traditional distance between the larger culture
and the academy. Partnerships with cnn and public television
will aid the translation of the center's research for a general
audience, while Emory's Biotechnology Development Center will
provide the links to industry to facilitate technology transfer
and perhaps open more career paths for the CBN's students.
With its interdisciplinary structure and web of connections with
other universities, state agencies, and corporations, the center
seems poised not only to further change the climate of ideas
in neuroscience but also to offer a barometer for the changing
climate for knowledge inquiry in the academy. A.B.B.