National Science Foundation funds multidisciplinary training of graduate students
An effort by Rice University to train the neuroengineers of the future has drawn nearly $2.8 million in support from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The highly competitive Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant for the program led by bioengineer Robert Raphael with colleagues at Rice and Baylor College of Medicine will spur innovative training that spans neuroscience, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and bioengineering.
The money will primarily support graduate students learning about new technologies to study the brain, Raphael said. He expects the program will begin accepting applications next spring.
The students will participate in an innovative curriculum focused on problem-based learning and the development of online educational resources. They will be exposed to global, ethical and policy aspects of neuroengineering and will be able to apply for an internal competitive incentive fund to explore new research ideas and technologies.
“We want engineering students at Rice to learn from neuroscientists at Baylor and neuroscience students at Baylor to learn from engineering at Rice,” Raphael said. “By doing so, we will enhance the education of these students beyond what’s possible at one institution or the other.”
Raphael, an associate professor of bioengineering, is based at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative. Joining him on the project as co-investigators are Rice colleagues Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and chair of the ECE Department; Marcia O’Malley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and computer science; and Caleb Kemere, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Dora Angelaki, the Wilhelmina Robertson Professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, also is a co-investigator.
Advances in electrical and optical methods to interact with the brain will help train students in three areas: cellular systems neuroengineering, which involves the study of molecular and cellular signaling; the engineering of multineuron circuits to induce specific responses in the brain; and translational neuroengineering to develop clinical devices like prosthetics and deep-brain stimulators.
“Neuroengineering, as an emerging discipline, is very interdisciplinary,” Aazhang said. “Students need to learn about the physiology of the brain, the human nervous system, computational, theoretical and experimental neuroscience, and engineering tools to be able to get started in doing research in this arena.
“As a graduate student, you need to become expert very quickly in several different areas that, a few years ago, were far removed from each other,” he said.
Many Rice labs are working on these very technologies, including Raphael’s studies of biological membranes and hearing loss, Aazhang’s work on real-time brain stimulation, O’Malley’s work on robotic exoskeletons that respond to wireless commands from the brain and Kemere’s investigation of interfaces with memory and other cognitive processes.
Raphael cited several Rice faculty who are not co-investigators but made pivotal contributions to the NSF bid, including bioengineer Amina Qutub, who takes a systems biology approach to cellular signaling in the neurovasculature, and electrical and computer engineer Jacob Robinson, who develops methods for recording from neurons using nanoscale technology.
“We have this nice convergence,” Raphael said. “I’ve been arguing since 2003 for a strategic plan to build neuroengineering at Rice. A few years ago, ECE made a decision to move forward in this area. Bioengineering has been building strength in systems biology and the new chair of neuroscience at Baylor (Angelaki) was trained as a biomedical engineer. All these things created the fertile environment that is now coming together.”
The NSF’s IGERT program was established in 1997 and has funded more than 125 sites to meet the challenges of educating U.S. scientists, engineers and educators. The new grant is the third IGERT Rice has received. Earlier grants were for nanophotonics research and a program in cellular engineering.