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Taking Neuroengineering by Storm

NSF grant creates innovative graduate program, promotes greater diversity in field

The UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering recently received a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to create a new graduate-level training program that stands to transform the field of neuroengineering. The grant is part of a larger effort by the Center for Neuroengineering and Medicine to promote neurological health and extend human capacity.

The NSF Research Traineeship will support a new educational program called NeuralStorm that will create a multi-tiered graduate training program in neuroengineering at UC Davis and will address some of the most prevalent, emerging trends in the field. These trends include harnessing data and analytics in neuroengineering; the growing convergence of multi-disciplinary research in the field and the need for communicating effectively across disciplines; and the future of the human-technology frontier. This program will bring graduate-level students from several different academic backgrounds into neuroengineering.

"Neuroengineering is a highly interdisciplinary field, but we have not trained students how to navigate the complexities of team-based, interdisciplinary research," said Karen Moxon, professor of biomedical engineering and principal investigator (PI) for the grant. "In the past decade, neuroengineering has ushered in new technologies to investigate brain function, complicating how experiments are performed and data collected. Moreover, these new technologies have allowed ever-increasing amounts of data to be acquired."

Co-PIs and Collaborators

Co-principal investigators (co-PI) on this project:

  • Associate professor Gene Gurkoff (Department of Neurosurgery in the School of Medicine and Center for Neuroscience)
  • Professor Wilsaan Joiner (Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, Department of Neurology in the School of Medicine, and Center for Neuroscience)
  • Professor Xin Liu (Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering)
  • Professor Erkin Şeker (Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering)

Outside collaborators:

  • Inscopix
  • NetValue BioConsulting Inc.
  • Lawrence Livermore National Labs
  • Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington
  • Battelle Memorial Institute
  • Easter Seals Superior California
  • Platt & Associates Inc.
  • SMUD Museum of Science and Curiosity

Four co-principal investigators representing different departments at UC Davis will support the program alongside Moxon. Additional collaborators include industry partners, academic and research institutes and non-profit organizations.

"These advances require a broader understanding of science, math and physics and collaboration between neuroscientists, engineers, clinicians and computer scientists," Moxon explained. "This all requires the ability to effectively work with experts across disciplines."

Graduate Studies key partner

The traineeship will accept six graduate student fellows per year into the program, five of whom are supported by the NSF grant and one that is supported by UC Davis Graduate Studies, a key university partner in this traineeship.

In addition to the fellowship, the grant will also support seminar series and workshops that will be open to the UC Davis community and public, as well as other activities that would allow graduate students to add a neuroengineering emphasis on their degree. Because of this multi-tiered approach, the project anticipates impacting 70 Ph.D. and 20 master’s students, including the 30 funded fellows from computer science, engineering, neuroscience and psychology over the course of the five-year grant.

Moxon partnered with staff at Graduate Studies to bring together six different graduate groups to form a unique curriculum and trainee program that expands across numerous disciplines to help create a more well-rounded neuroengineering education. Students who participate in the traineeship will still pursue in-depth research and a thesis, but they will also learn fundamental skills to collaborate across disciplines, including interdisciplinary communication, the basics of team-based science and ethics specifically related to the growing field of neuroengineering. Moxon points out that these skills are essential in the field now and will be only more so in the future.

"If you look at neuroengineering now, it's part biomedical engineering, but it’s also electrical, mechanical and computer engineering," Moxon said. "Neuroscience and medicine have always been a critical part but now, not only do graduate students need to know neuroscience much more deeply than they did 10 years ago, they also need to understand data analytics, computer programming, artificial intelligence and machine learning. So that is why we are creating this program."

The NeuralStorm project will bring together trainees from broad academic backgrounds with three objectives. First is to ensure they are grounded in the complex neuroethical issues associated with interfacing the nervous system. Second is to equip the students with intelligent communication skills that allow them to work effectively across fields. Third is to prepare students to navigate the expected rapid advances in technology throughout their careers in a way that ensures the resulting neurotechnology has the greatest, positive impact for society.

Diversity of ideas and people

In addition to bringing a diversity of disciplines into neuroscience, a key component of the program will be to recruit and retain a greater number of students from diverse backgrounds into the field.

"A fundamental understanding of this program is that including a diverse group of people makes it better," Moxon said. "Whether that’s diverse because of fields of study, or culturally, socially or gender-wise. There is a huge need for greater diversity in neuroengineering, so we need more programs that are focused on addressing this."

Moxon said UC Davis is well-positioned to accomplish this goal because of the richness of support services offered within Graduate Studies, as well as the research prowess of UC Davis, including the Center for Neuroengineering and Medicine.

"UC Davis has the potential to be the top neuroengineering program in the country, and this training program will be part of that," said Moxon, who is a co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering and Medicine. "It will make UC Davis the place everyone wants to come to because we are doing the best science and we have the best training program. We want people to know UC Davis is the place for neuroengineering."

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