July 8, 2016

Six scientists named inaugural Mong neurotech fellows

Three pairs of early career scientists have been named the inaugural Mong Family Foundation Fellows in Neurotech. They will work jointly under the mentorship of faculty across Cornell to advance technologies that promise to provide insight into how brains work, as well as strategies to fix them when they break.

The fellowships are part of the multimillion-dollar seed grant from the Mong Family Foundation, through Stephen Mong ’92, MEN ’93, MBA ’02, which launched the Cornell Neurotech collaboration between the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Engineering in 2015. The collaboration’s mission is to develop technologies and powerful new tools needed to reveal the inner workings of the brain, with a particular focus on how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.

“By applying cutting-edge physical tools to significant neuroscience problems, the inaugural fellowship projects fit the vision of Cornell Neurotech perfectly,” says Chris Xu, the Mong Family Foundation Director of Cornell Neurotech–Engineering and professor of applied and engineering physics. “The Mong fellows will greatly help establish and strengthen the connections between technology and neuroscience at Cornell, and these collaborations, facilitated by the Mong fellows program, will continue to put Cornell at the forefront of neurotech development.”

“The projects are at the very front of technologies and analytical tools for understanding the brain,” adds Joseph Fetcho, director of Cornell Neurotech–Arts and Sciences and professor of neurobiology and behavior. “The fellows represent super bright, collaborative, nascent scientific leaders with a remarkable breadth of talents, from physics, engineering and biology. Their collaborations will seed a future where such broad interdisciplinary interactions are the norm.

The first team includes Mong senior fellow David Bulkin, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, and Mong junior fellow Yiting Xie, a graduate student in the field of electrical and computer engineering. The team’s faculty mentors are Melissa Warden, assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Anthony Reeves, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The team is working to bridge the impasse between functional and structural data in intact brains. “Our work promises to provide unprecedented ties between function and the structure and molecular properties of neurons anywhere in the brain,” say the researchers. “These ties are critical for revealing how the brain works normally and what changes in disease states.”

The second team comprises Mong junior fellow Mitch Pender, a graduate student in the field of biomedical engineering, and Mong junior fellow Changwoo Seo, a graduate student in the field of neurobiology and behavior. Faculty mentors are Warden and Nozomi Nishimura, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

The team is taking a “barcode approach” to neuronal activity in the brain. “Our approach involves a mix of chemistry to optimize probes to sense neural firing, imaging technology to detect weak signals, and the application of the new tools to probe changes in the brain associated with a model of depression,” say the researchers. “Our work pushes forward the technologies for monitoring neuronal activity and promises to provide insight into the changes in brain function associated with depression.”

The third team consists of Mong junior fellow Sam Whitehead,a graduate student in the field of physics, and Mong junior fellow Teja Pratap Bollu , a graduate student in the field of neurobiology and behavior. Faculty mentors are Itai Cohen, associate professor of physics, and Jesse Goldberg, assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior, both in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The team seeks to reveal the fundamental units for control of movement. “Our work will offer direct insight into how the brain controls behavior (which nearly always involves movement), with implications for understanding what happens when movements are disrupted in illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease,” say the researchers.

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