The University Record, February 22, 1999

Report of the Commission on Life Sciences

Akil emphasizes importance of cross-cutting aspect of initiatives

Huda Akil, co-chair of the Commission, the Gardner C. Quarton Professor of Neurosciences and co-director of the Mental Health Research Institute, notes that the most important aspect of the proposed initiatives is that they are cross-cutting across multiple units of the University—including LS&A, engineering, medicine and the other health sciences schools—and cross-cutting in terms of levels of discourse.

“They involve scientists very interested in single molecules, scientists interested in whole organisms, and scientists whose interests stretch beyond single organisms to focus on understanding interactions among organisms, evolution and ecosystems. It’s very important intellectually to understand how life comes about, starting with individual molecules and turning into complex living entities that interact with each other and their environment.

“The theme of understanding interactions is at the very heart of the proposed initiatives,” she says, “not studying one thing at a time. Components of living systems interact with each other, whether they are genes or whole organisms or anything in between. New properties emerge from these interactions that need to be understood, and that cannot be grasped if we study each element in isolation. This is why the central theme of the entire initiative is ‘complexity.’”

Akil says the Commission proposed an institute structure for most of the initiatives because they can be set up in a network that overlays departmental structure and helps link departments and schools, making the initiatives truly campuswide.

“While these individuals will teach and do committee work in their home departments, they simultaneously will be conducting research with colleagues from other parts of the University. The network of institutes will link units intellectually and practically,” Akil explains, “providing opportunities for interaction and collaboration and at the same time strengthening departments.”

Seconding Roush’s comments on the various initiatives, Akil elaborated on the Cognitive Neuroscience Initiative. “It is at the interface of life sciences and other areas and clearly links life sciences to social sciences and humanities.”

It focuses on the most complex aspects of neuroscience—how the brain works in order to perform cognitive tasks; how we think, speak, use language; how we perceive the world around us; how we learn; how we remember.

This initiative, Akil says, “presents a particular challenge, which is now to go from a molecular understanding of the brain to understanding the really complex functions that the brain performs. The applications are very broad, but among them are clinical applications to what happens when we age and these functions start to fall apart, and to certain diseases.

“These areas are of great interest to others in the University community,” Akil says, adding that the initiative relies heavily on interactions among cognitive psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists and bioengineers, who are able to think about the very specialized equipment needed to study brain function while people are performing cognitive tasks.

“This is a good example of the Commission’s efforts to propose something that is at the heart of the life sciences but links to many disparate units.”


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