massachusetts institute of technology

MIT 1990-2004: The Vest Years
Establishing the Epicenter of Neuroscience Establishing the Epicenter of Neuroscience

The imposing skeleton of a large new facility looms on the north side of Vassar Street; it is the physical manifestation of MIT’s profound strategic commitment to leadership in the brain and cognitive sciences. When complete, the building will unite the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Picower Center for Learning and Memory, and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, establishing perhaps the most remarkable concentration of scientific creativity in the study of the mind and brain anywhere in the world.

Like most organizations, universities advance sometimes by careful planning and strategy, and, probably more often, by serendipity and a knack for recognizing opportunities. Sometimes it takes both.

In 1993, a trustee of a large foundation called to say that they had just completed funding a major scientific undertaking and were ready to pursue another. If significant private support became available, he asked, what program would MIT propose?

I posed this question to an informal group of men and women faculty leaders, representing many disciplines and departments in the Schools of Science and Engineering. After much discussion, their unanimous and enthusiastic recommendation was this: We should propose a major thrust in neuroscience.

In the end, the particular foundation did not mount another grand project at the time —but the discussion started wheels turning at MIT.

Some important wheels were turning already: our brain and cognitive sciences faculty wanted to become better integrated into MIT’s core teaching efforts. The Dean of Science, Bob Birgeneau, had come to see brain research as critical to the future of science. Many biologists felt neurobiology would be the next profoundly productive area of life science. Indeed, Professor Susumu Tonegawa, who had received the Nobel Prize for his work in immunology, had turned his attention to the study of learning and memory.

Broad agreement began to emerge. This was the moment —and MIT was the place —to launch a massive new effort in brain science. Why? Because the field was “ripe.” Suddenly, a host of new tools were ready to answer age-old questions and raise intriguing new ones. Biology was offering newly detailed ways to study neurons. Rapid advances in instrumentation —from microarrays of electrical probes to functional magnetic resonance imaging —were providing unprecedented new ability to observe some brain activities in real time. Mapping and sequencing of the human genome and others were providing new ways to track and understand genetic aspects of learning, memory, and disease. MIT in particular had great strength in linguistics and computer science that could help shape brain research and modeling. Our mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists had learned a lot about analyzing systems of huge size and complexity, like the brain. Our engineers could both build remarkable new instrumentation and bring a different philosophy of research and modeling of brain processes.

After thoughtful faculty discussion, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences moved into the School of Science. From its inception, the department had had a distinctive commitment to linking the study of the mind with the study of the brain, connecting everything from molecular neurobiology to systems and computational neuroscience to cognitive science and psychology. Ably led by Emilio Bizzi and later by Mriganka Sur, it was perfectly situated to be the core of this new thrust.

The great potential for brain research had also struck a resonant chord in philanthropists Pat and Lore McGovern. Pat, who since his youth had had an interest in the brain, had majored in biology as a student at MIT and had built a publishing empire grounded in the role of computers. Through discussion with scientists and engineers at MIT and elsewhere, the McGoverns decided to establish the McGovern Institute for Brain Research (MIBR) at MIT. Provost Bob Brown and the new Dean of Science, Bob Silbey, played key roles in shaping the MIBR. Nobel laureate Phil Sharp became its founding director, bringing not only his scientific stature, but great wisdom and experience in fostering great science within MIT.

With generous seed funding from the Fairchild Foundation, Professor Tonegawa had earlier launched the Center for Learning and Memory. As it grew and developed, we were fortunate to gain the attention of a remarkable philanthropic couple, Barbara and Jeffry Picower of New York. Although they had no prior connection to MIT, they knew of our academic excellence and had a long friendship with Norman Leventhal, a life member of the MIT Corporation. Once they came to grasp the scientific vision and the great human potential of the center, they contributed generously to its growth and the cost of building its new facilities.

There is much more to this story already, but most of it remains to be written by the scientists and engineers who will study and do research in this extraordinary center of centers in the decades to come. Their work will eventually help explain many devastating neurological and emotional diseases, and move us toward therapies for them. They will contribute greatly to improved human communication and learning. And in the process they will help to lead the great scientific adventure of 21st century.

Essays by Charles M. Vest