University News

Fundraising to expand brain science faculty

Arts & Culture Editor
Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The University will fundraise $50 million over the next five years as part of a new initiative to expand the Brown Institute for Brain Science. A large portion of these funds will be used to pay for seven new positions in the institute, said John Donoghue PhD ’79 P’09 P’12, director of the institute and professor of neuroscience.

Originally started as a program in brain sciences 12 years ago, the initiative became a full-fledged institute three years ago, Donoghue said. The collaboration unites faculty and undergraduates from 10 different departments at the University, including neuroscience, biology, computer science, physics and cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences. The institute provides Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards, supports graduate students, funds faculty pilot projects and sponsors talks and seminars all within the realm of brain science.

“Brown has a very large and very distinguished faculty studying the brain,” Donoghue said. 

Donoghue recently brought forward a plan to expand the institute by hiring faculty in specialized areas, said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15.

The University then brought in outside reviewers with knowledge of neuroscience to advise Schlissel and President Ruth Simmons on the decision to further invest in the institute, which Schlissel said went “spectacularly.” The reviewers told him and Simmons that “Brown is as good as anybody in brain science,” Schlissel said, and that it is an important area of research in which the University should invest.

This investment will mainly fund the creation of seven new tenure-track positions in the institute, Donoghue said. The institute is already in the process of searching for a molecular neuroscientist and a computational neuroscientist to add to the faculty, said Barry Connors, professor of neuroscience. 

Hiring a new faculty member is extremely expensive, Connors said, adding that it requires negotiating laboratory space, resources, equipment, technicians, graduate students and often post-doctoral students.

“Where people used to get $100,000, now they get $1 million,” Donoghue said of funding startups for faculty-run laboratories.

All 10 departments involved in the institute will meet as a group to discuss how these positions are going to be filled, Donoghue said.

The increase in faculty will benefit the institute as well as the Department of Neuroscience by “adding substantially to the diversity and quality of neuroscience on campus,” Connors said. There will be more professors to teach interesting undergraduate courses, as well as more opportunities for undergraduate research in brain science, Schlissel added.

To find qualified candidates, the institute has advertised in professional journals, Schlissel said. Members of the Brown community can also apply if they are not already faculty members since faculty already have the ability to work with the institute, he said. .

With a constrained budget and a commitment to not diverting funds from other University projects, the institute’s expansion is largely being funded by individual donors who support brain science initiatives, Schlissel said.

A modest amount of money has been raised already, he said. The Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, formally accepted $3 million donated to fund a computational neuroscience professorship at its February meeting, as well as another $1 million to support research in neuroscience, according to a Feb. 11 University press release.

In addition, a gift of $1.5 million was recently given to fund work on neurodegenerative diseases, which will eventually lead to the establishment of a center for synaptic and neurodegenerative diseases, Donoghue said

Other sources of funding include external federal grants and corporation and foundation partnerships, Donoghue said.

This initiative provides a step forward in the institute’s expansion. Members of the institute are beginning to think about the creation of a new building, which will be highly interdisciplinary and “represent the flavor of Brown,” Donoghue said.

As it expands, the institute will continue its approach of focusing research on fundamental understanding of brain function, maintenance of brain health and development of neurotechnology

“There are important levels of scientific understanding we would like to achieve,” Schlissel said.

Donoghue added that he wants to incorporate into the institute research on “smart technology” — the elements of human thought that are currently outside the abilities of computers such as making generalizations and connections in real life situations.

“There is something we can do that computers can’t,” Donoghue said. “The future will be very exciting.”