Ten years of team science
Leaders of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute reflect on a decade of boundary-breaking study of the brain and what lies ahead for Stanford’s widespread neurosciences community.
A decade ago, Stanford created a new institute focused on interdisciplinary study of the brain and its functions, now known as the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. At the time, the institute’s founding director, neurobiologist Bill Newsome, described the importance of convening myriad experts from across the university to focus on this topic.
“The study of the brain is no longer, if it ever was, just a problem of biology,” said Newsome, then. He added, “We need to bring new minds to the conversation to think in fundamentally new ways about what kind of experiments it makes sense to do in this age of rapid technological advances.”
The Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute has remained focused on boundary-breaking collaborations with funding for interdisciplinary research, support for trainees from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, cutting-edge shared facilities, and events and initiatives that seek to bind together the neurosciences community across campus. Its members continue to advance basic neuroscience, develop and capitalize on emerging technologies, and transform fundamental discoveries into clinical breakthroughs.
“There are so many opportunities and different types of support for students and faculty,” said Allison Okamura, an executive committee member at the institute and the Richard W. Weiland Professor in the School of Engineering. “The breadth of what the center is doing to connect people to neuroscience at all these different levels – it’s amazing.”
To reflect on how the institute has grown and changed in the past decade, celebrate some of its major successes, and preview its future, Stanford News spoke with Wu Tsai Neurosciences leaders Okamura, Marion Buckwalter, and Kang Shen. Buckwalter is an executive committee member and professor of neurology and neurological sciences and of neurosurgery in the School of Medicine. Shen is the Vincent V.C. Woo Director of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute and the Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.
Bill Newsome famously asked researchers across Stanford, “What can we achieve together that none of us could accomplish alone?” How do you think the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute has answered that question in its first 10 years?
Okamura: With our Big Ideas in Neuroscience grants we’ve been able to bring together faculty from many different fields to address fundamental questions in neuroscience. They represent the biological sciences but also medicine, engineering, law, and other disciplines you might not expect. This program has enabled people to do projects that are very different from what an individual lab might tackle.
Buckwalter: Prior to the formation of the institute, I only really knew what faculty in my department were doing. Having the institute, even just as a physical space, and the grant opportunities, the social engagement, has helped form a community. When I want to collaborate with people like Allison in mechanical engineering or Sarah Heilshorn in chemical engineering, I’ve already built that relationship and can reach out in a much more natural way. This allows for collaboration in my work that I otherwise might not have. I think that synergy is created when this is repeated over and over for each faculty member.
Can you describe an advancement or achievement from the past decade that has particular significance to you?
Buckwalter: One of the things I’m involved in and really excited about is increasing the institute’s outreach toward underrepresented minorities. We’ve started several new programs including one called NeURO-CC that hosts community college students at Stanford in the summer.
Another program, Pathways to Neurosciences, is for trainees from underrepresented backgrounds who are all senior graduate students or junior postdocs in neurosciences. This is led by Miriam Goodman, Erin Gibson, and myself. With support from the institute and several departments at Stanford, we were able to get a federal R25 grant to support the program, which serves 50 trainees a year. I think programs like these that diversify and make science more inclusive are essential to giving everyone a shot at becoming a scientist and making future discoveries.
Shen: As one of our early Big Ideas in Neuroscience projects, the institute funded a group of researchers and enabled them to come together to study the aging brain and neurodegeneration. That has now turned into its own initiative, the Phil and Penny Knight Initiative for Brain Resilience, within our institute. This project directly benefited from the institute’s facilitation and the framework created by the Big Ideas grants. It allowed this group of researchers to form a team and that helped prepare them for a great new opportunity.
Similarly, on the other side of the lifespan, another Big Ideas grant supported the creation of the Stanford Brain Organogenesis Program, which has developed an incredibly exciting platform for studying the earliest stages of human brain development – and disorders such as autism spectrum disorders – in brain organoid models grown from stem cells in the lab.
This project reflects one of the institute’s other strengths: our robust connection to faculty at the engineering school. There are so many exciting technologies that are being developed by Stanford engineers, many with institute support, such as an artificial retina, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and flexible electrodes. These new technologies will enable us to gain access to the biology of the human brain and make progress toward therapeutics.
Okamura: I’d like to touch on another program called Neuroscience:Translate. We award grants that provide researchers with funding to take discoveries further and develop them into spinoff companies or clinical studies. It also connects researchers with, for example, experts in venture capital, commercialization, business, and intellectual property. This type of translation is not only about starting businesses and companies, but also about improving human lives. Neuroscience:Translate moves the science into translation and teaches researchers how to understand and participate in that process. Those are things that echo throughout our careers.
What have you learned in your role as a leader of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute?
Okamura: I’m an engineer. I’m not trained in biology. Being part of a community that embraces people from different backgrounds with open arms and even welcomes us into leadership is amazing. Ultimately, we’re a group of people with a common goal – to improve society through neuroscience. It has been such a refreshing experience for me and a fantastic opportunity to get to know people from other parts of the university.
Shen: I second that, I’ve been in this role for a little over a year and it has been a tremendous learning experience. Learning how a university operates and how to represent the faculty and serve as a liaison has really opened my eyes to the work my colleagues at the institute are doing. It’s helped me advocate for my colleagues, turn our work into language the public can understand, and think about how we can have the biggest impact in the future.
Buckwalter: I have also discovered a lot about how the university runs and gained enormous respect for all my colleagues in neuroscience. I think one of the other big things I’ve learned is how to work as a team. Team science is sort of a buzzword, but it’s something that the institute excels at and for us it is much more than a buzzword. It helps us bring everyone together under one roof. I’m grateful for the opportunity to facilitate that and work with people who have different perspectives.
What are areas in which the neurosciences at Stanford can continue to grow as the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute enters its next decade?
Shen: Now that we have built this community of interdisciplinary researchers, we can engage them to make progress in understanding the brain’s basic functions while also solving problems with enormous human and societal impact.
Neuroscience has made remarkable progress in recent years, but much of what we know about the organization and function of neural circuits still derives from the study of animal models. Armed with powerful new technologies, from spatial transcriptomics to AI, we have a tremendous opportunity to leverage our growing understanding of the brain and apply it to advancing human health and well-being across the lifespan.