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The ‘Three-Pound Universe’

FullTextImage/img/@altDr. William Casebeer addresses conference participants during the opening session of the 2013 VMI STEM Education Conference. -- VMI Photo by John Robertson IV.

STEM Conference Opens with Glimpses at Cutting-Edge Research in Neuroscience

LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 8, 2013 – More than 250 high school students, faculty, and administrators from across Virginia joined VMI faculty members to hear about cutting-edge research in neuroscience this morning as the 2013 VMI STEM Education Conference kicked off.

The three-year series of STEM conferences is aimed at preparing high school students for careers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Last year, the inaugural conference had mathematics as its focus. This year, the theme of the conference is, “Science with the Future in Mind.”

With that theme as their backdrop, the opening speakers, both neuroscientists, used the occasion of the STEM conference to speak about advances in their field and how better understanding of the structure and functioning of the human brain could have vast implications for everything from preventing war to curing disease.

Addressing the conference participants were Dr. William Casebeer, program manager in the Defense Sciences Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA; and Dr. Amy Bernard, director of structured science at the Allen Institute of Brain Science in Seattle, Wash.

Casebeer, a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force who specializes in neuroethics and military ethics, began his remarks by introducing President Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, which the White House unveiled in April. The $100 million program, whose name stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, charges DARPA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation with coming to a more sophisticated understanding of the structure and functioning of the human brain.

Casebeer explained that through his work at DARPA, he and his colleagues aim to further the president’s BRAIN Initiative by understanding, augmenting, restoring, and emulating the human brain. To that end, they are using multiple avenues to explore the functioning of what Casebeer termed the “three-pound universe” sitting atop everyone’s shoulders. The brain, he noted, can still “outperform the fastest supercomputer on the face of the globe.”

Casebeer and his fellow researchers are turning to one of the oldest forms of the communication known to man: the story. “Stories and narratives have a powerful influence on human behavior,” Casebeer noted. “We know that stories and narratives influence the way we reason, …[so] we should treat them as a resource for our war fighters.”

As an example of the power of a narrative, Casebeer asked his audience to consider the “trolley problem” of moral philosophy. An out-of-control trolley is coming down the track toward a group of five children playing there, directly in the trolley’s path. The children are too far away to hear a shouted warning from an onlooker, but at the onlooker’s feet is a switch that, if flipped, will divert the trolley away from the five children, but onto a track where a single child is playing.

The scientist then asked the members of the audience to raise their hands if they would divert the trolley. About 60 percent of the audience raised their hands, using what Casebeer termed “utilitarian reasoning” to calculate the consequences.

Next, Casebeer told a story involving an almost identical situation – except that this time, an out-of-control train is approaching a footbridge, and if a child is pushed off the bridge, the train will slow down and the people on the train will be saved. When asked how many would push the child out of the way, only a handful of people raised their hands.

The language and structure of narrative, said Casebeer, are set up differently in each story, in order to prime the audience to reach a different conclusion. “Now philosophers have gone round and round trying to draw a principal distinction between these two cases,” the DARPA scientist observed.

The difference, he noted, is that the language and structure of narrative in the first story calls upon areas of the brain that have to do with calculation of consequences, while the second brings up processing of emotions and theory of mind, which involves making inferences about the mental states of others.

Continuing the discussion of brain functioning was Bernard, a molecular neuroscientist whose employer, the Allen Institute, is also involved with Obama’s BRAIN Initiative. Bernard began her remarks by pointing out that neuroscience is not a new field – and to illustrate her point, she showed a slide of a remarkably prescient drawing of a brain by Leonardo da Vinci, dated 1508.

Likewise, Bernard pointed out that neuroscience is not one field but a conglomeration of several, including chemistry, linguistics, computer science, and philosophy. “This interdisciplinary field really does require all of these other fields to come together,” she noted.

With contributions pouring in from all of those areas of study, there is no shortage of information. Research about the brain, Bernard noted, is coming in at a torrid pace, with a new scientific paper being published every 20 seconds. “Genius is a community-based phenomenon,” she stated.

Thanks to this wealth of findings, and plethora of contributors, a “big science” approach is enabling Bernard and other researchers to learn more about the brain’s structure and functioning. Because of this, she observed, we are coming closer to understanding how the parts of the brain fit together, how they receive and store information, and what goes wrong in disease.

Like Casebeer, Bernard used the analogy of a computer to help her audience grasp the workings of the brain. “Everyone has a big, wet computer,” observed Bernard, who holds a doctorate in genetics and biophysics from the University of Colorado. That computer, she added, holds 100 billion neurons and 100,000 miles of blood vessels. Together, those help to process 70,000 thoughts a day.

After their presentations, Casebeer and Bernard sat down with Col. Jim Turner ’65, VMI professor of biology, to take questions from the audience before a scheduled lunch break. One audience member asked Bernard if the human genome project had yielded any information about how many genes are active in the brain. The Allen Institute scientist replied that approximately 80 percent of human genes are active there. “This is a lot higher than we thought,” she said.

Another questioner asked Bernard how her work on the molecular level would have an impact in the real world. Bernard’s answer revealed a good bit about how discoveries in science actually advance learning in the field.

In the short term, she acknowledged, her work doesn’t contribute much. “Discoveries get built over a long period of time,” she remarked. “In science, you’re often in it for the long haul. It can take dozens or hundreds of years to see the impact of something. ... Longer term, what we do is generate a lot of primary information that can be a foundational groundwork.”

This year’s STEM conference is purposely small, at least by the standards of its predecessor, because the event’s organizers wanted to make sure students got a hands-on approach to science, explained Capt. Beth Stefanik, communications specialist with VMI’s Center for Leadership and Ethics.

“We made this year’s STEM conference smaller by design,” Stefanik said. “We went to a workshop-based format, and also supported high school student attendance via grants.”

With that goal in mind, 36 small group sessions are scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 9, with many of them to be led by VMI faculty members from a variety of STEM disciplines.

– Mary Price