Penn State has a new cross-disciplinary program to train graduate students interested in the complex landscape of the human brain, supported by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Faculty from the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering recently launched the predoctoral training program to encourage collaboration among STEM — or science, technology, engineering and mathematics — students and faculty interested in how the brain works and how to treat brain disorders and diseases. The program’s founding faculty members come from anthropology, biomedical engineering (BME), electrical engineering, engineering science and mechanics (ESM), math, mechanical engineering, neuroscience and physics.
“The program will allow experts in a certain field to readily work across disciplinary boundaries, which will likely lead to advances in research in overall brain function and brain health, in which the NIH has a vested interest,” said Bruce Gluckman, co-principal investigator on the grant, director of the Center for Neural Engineering and professor of ESM, BME and neurosurgery. “And STEM students will learn how to apply their expertise to health care, in coordination with experts in neuroscience.”
The training program will provide academic guidance across disciplinary boundaries for students who have completed their home graduate program courses in their first two years, according to Dezhe Jin, co-principal investigator, associate director of the training program and associate professor of physics.
The program will fund fellowships, starting this fall, for about three graduate students per year who are in the third and fourth years of their doctoral programs. But the benefits of the program will extend to any STEM student interested in neural engineering and cross-disciplinary quantitative neuroscience.
With its physical home in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, faculty and students affiliated with the Center for Neural Engineering come from departments across multiple colleges and graduate programs. The training program will provide a formal academic structure for neural engineering students, since there is not currently a graduate program specific to the field at Penn State.
“We will bring interested scholars together for a weekly meeting, where we will give and receive feedback for research ideas and discuss quantitative methods, research design, methods for avoiding cognitive bias and how to work across disciplinary boundaries,” Gluckman said. “Additionally, we will provide training modules for students to go through at their own pace.”
The program also will offer professional development opportunities and seminars on such topics as grant writing and funding applications. Administrators also will organize scientific journal reading groups and an annual retreat with speakers and team building activities.
In addition to fostering interdisciplinary collaborations, the program activities will provide an opportunity for students and faculty to work extensively with people from different backgrounds, according to Jin.
“Students will be working with diverse faculty from many fields and with different expertise,” Jin said. “The goal is for students to become unique and well-trained scientists who are well versed in multiple technical fields and statistics and are well aware of cognitive biases that might affect research design and data analysis. We emphasize that this program will be inclusive of all students, and we want to promote their path to success.”
The program also will have an emphasis on ethics, led by newly hired Laura Cabrera. An associate professor of neuroethics in ESM, Cabrera also is a co-hire with the Rock Ethics Institute in the College of the Liberal Arts.
“Embedding ethics into all research, into the way we do research, is an important highlight of our training program and will set up our scholars for successful careers in the sciences,” Gluckman said.