March 6, 2014

'Neurodinners' offer smorgasbord of research ideas

President Obama’s “Brain Initiative” aims to revolutionize brain research across the globe; two graduate students have launched an initiative to transform neuroscience research at Cornell. Their “cross-departmental neuroscience analysis group” held its first “Neurodinner” Feb. 13 in Corson-Mudd Hall, featuring make-your-own sandwiches, antipasto and conversation about neuroscience.

“There haven’t been avenues for people who do neuroscience across campus to get to know each other,” explained Joe DiPietro, a graduate student in neurobiology and behavior professor Joseph Fetcho’s lab. “This is a way for people to learn about the resources available to neuroscientists on campus and to create a better environment for collaboration – and for us all to become friends.” DiPietro organized the evening with Matt Lewis, also a graduate student in the field of neurobiology and behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences.

At the Neurodinner, graduate students, post-doctoral students, and faculty members from the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Human Ecology gave brief summaries of their research, illustrating how neuroscience research at Cornell occurs at every level, from micro to macro. Research projects ranged from studies of the nervous system at the level of individual neurons and proteins, to neural circuits and behavior, to the interaction of brain regions in insects, birds and mammals – as well as humans. A graduate student in the field of applied physics described his work developing better imaging tools, while engineers talked about applying neuroscience principles to machines and implementing properties of biological metabolism in robotic ecologies.

“An important goal of Neurodinner is to provide an avenue where people can bridge these different levels of analysis in neuroscience research,” said DiPietro. “The future of neuroscience is bridging the gaps between all these different areas.”

After introductions, attendees offered suggestions for future events that would include intellectual exchange and opportunities for socializing, as well as the chance to discuss research problems and hear perspectives from researchers in other fields.

While many Neurodinner participants described using similar techniques in their research – despite their widely divergent fields – others used novel equipment or approaches. Future Neurodinners will include presentations of laboratory techniques and equipment such as optogenetics (the use of light-sensitive proteins to control and monitor neurons), behavioral pharmacology (which studies the behavioral effects of psychoactive drugs) and Cornell’s new MRI machine.

Neurodinners will be held on the third Thursday of the month in Corson-Mudd Hall. The March 20 event will feature new faculty introducing themselves and their research and will include time for conversation.

Christiane Linster, professor of neurobiology and behavior and director of Cornell’s Program in Neuroscience, is also planning a symposium May 15 for Neurodinner participants and others to showcase their research.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.