A New Kind of Training Ground for Interdisciplinary Research

A portion of the collage found on the Neuroengineering IGERT program poster

Researchers from the Beckman Institute led the way in obtaining an IGERT Award training grant from the National Science Foundation for the University of Illinois to train future researchers how to collaborate in interdisciplinary neuroengineering projects.

New neuroengineering IGERT program trains students how to do interdisciplinary research

The Beckman Institute building was designed in such a way as to enhance interdisciplinary research collaborations. But the human component of those collaborations, which involve researchers from different disciplines with often very different approaches to doing science, can sometimes resemble the famous poem about six blind men taking the measure of an elephant.

Nineteenth Century poet John Godfrey Saxe based his work on a fable from India about six blind men each trying to describe an elephant based only on the part of the elephant – the tusk, the trunk, etc. – they were touching. It was an instructive tale about the problem of trying to understand the whole based on disparate perspectives.

So how do researchers with dissimilar knowledge bases and perspectives work together effectively in an interdisciplinary research project? A new training grant involving a number of Beckman researchers is tackling that very question, while at the same time trying to advance the emerging field of neuroengineering.

A new five-year education and research grant from the National Science Foundation to fund one of their interdisciplinary training programs, known as an IGERT, was awarded to the University of Illinois in 2009 to train future researchers in how to collaborate in interdisciplinary neuroengineering projects.

More than 60 Illinois faculty members are associated with the training program, which is led by Beckman Institute faculty members Doug Jones as its principal investigator (PI) and Monica Fabiani and Todd Coleman as co-PIs, along with Bob Wickesberg. Jones and Coleman are faculty in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering while Fabiani and Wickesberg are in the Department of Psychology.

Jones was involved in one of the most successful – and one of the most interdisciplinary – collaborations ever forged at Beckman: the Intelligent Hearing Aid project that encompassed the fields of engineering, computer science, speech and hearing science, and biology.

“Our success there sold me on the idea that, even strictly as an engineer, there is value for to me to collaborate with neuroscientists,” Jones said. “So I’ve continued to collaborate with biologists on different sets of problems.

“The first motivation was simply ‘here is this problem that human hearing does just fine, but we engineers couldn’t solve it. So maybe we could learn something from the brain.’ And we did. There is a lot of possibility for cross-fertilization in these types of connections.”

That experience has given Jones a unique perspective on trying to form collaborations between researchers who may have totally different approaches to doing science and who have little to no knowledge of their collaborator’s field.

“In some sense we’ve solved a lot of the problems that were easy to solve working in our own domains,” Jones said. “A lot of the problems that are left are kind of just extensions of the same old ones we are hitting walls on. As disciplines mature, you’re going to have to bring something new in to address those barriers.

“Now is the time when we have to pick it up a notch or look in another direction. Neuroscience is going to need some new tools, new ways of collecting data and understanding data than they have ever had before. And engineers, if we are going to solve some of these problems that have proved intractable, we’re going to have to have some new insights.”

That’s why the IGERT program for graduate students holds such promise. Engineering students will be learning about neuroscience and students with a neuroscience background will be learning aspects of engineering that could be applied to neuroengineering research.

"In the end our goal is to get people up to a point where they can collaborate effectively with people from another discipline."
– Doug Jones

The Web site for the program says that neuroengineering “has the potential to transform medicine and improve life, but researchers are just beginning to tap the possibilities.” In order to reach that potential this unique campus program is “educating the next generation of neuroscientists and engineers to develop tomorrow’s technology.”

Toward that end, graduate students will be going through a program of courses in three successive semesters, beginning with crash courses for the neuroscientists insignal analysis and the same for engineers in neuroscience. In the second semester, students will specialize in the three research areas of the IGERT program: audition, brain machine interfaces, and neuroengineering. The third semester will feature pairs of one engineering student and one neuroscience student working on individual projects.

Jones said the idea is to give the students at least a rudimentary understanding of their counterpart’s discipline, especially at it would apply in these types of projects.

“In the end our goal is to get people up to a point where they can collaborate effectively with people from another discipline,” he said. “It can be frustrating to explain the same thing over and over again, so the idea is to get people at least up to the level where they can talk.

“The second thing I’ve noticed that can really hinder collaboration is that there are very different cultures in the two disciplines, their way of thinking about things. For me, someone who is very much an engineer at heart and in training, it took awhile to think in a scientific way. I had to learn that culture, how do you do good experiments and understand the basics. Part of our goal is to really get the people in the other discipline up to speed where they can do the basic stuff.”

The program had its origins in discussions between Jones and Coleman, whose research involves computational neuroscience, or using statistical and computational approaches to understand brain function.

“We exchanged ideas about identifying training grant programs offered through the federal government to train graduate students at the intersection of these disciplines,” Coleman said. “We randomly noticed that there was a ‘limited submission’ campus announcement one day in January, and one of the topics was an NSF IGERT – which is exactly the type of training grant we discussed before.”

They wrote a proposal that was one of four of 12 selected from campus to be sent to the NSF, which later requested a full proposal from the Jones-Coleman group. That proposal was later approved and Illinois was awarded nearly $3M to serve as the home for this new IGERT training program, set in a rapidly emerging and exciting field of research.

“It definitely puts Illinois on the map,” Coleman said. “A tremendous amount of research has taken place over the years in this area at Illinois, but the campus visibility in highlighting these accomplishments perhaps could be improved. This program will allow us to (a) collaborate with other institutions; medical centers; and companies doing such cutting-edge research, and (b) attract some of the nation’s best students to study and solidify these connections so that Illinois is recognized as a key player in this arena nationwide.”

There are eight graduate students in this first class – four from neuroscience or psychology and four from electrical and computer engineering – who are taking courses this spring titled Introduction to Systems Neuroscience and Principles of Signal Analysis.

The three research thrusts of the program feature two areas that are strengths at Illinois, audition and neuroimaging, and a third, brain-machine interfaces, that is on the leading edge of where human-technology interaction is headed.

“It definitely puts Illinois on the map. A tremendous amount of research has taken place over the years in this area at Illinois, but the campus visibility in highlighting these accomplishments perhaps could be improved.” — Todd Coleman

The research into audition will provide insight into how the brain processes sound, in order to advance hearing aid technology, including cochlear implants. The neuroimaging thrust will seek to improve our understanding of the brain, while research into brain-machine interfaces studies how brain signals recognize intent. Possible applications there include rehabilitation, as in thought-driven wheelchairs and visual implants that stimulate the optic nerve and restore sight.

The researchers behind this effort believe that “many of the most important and exciting scientific and technological challenges for the future are centered on neuroscience, the study of the brain.” According to the project’s Web site, these current and future advances in understanding the brain “depend on engineering new technologies for sensing, imaging, and analyzing the brain and their innovative use by neuroscientists.”

One example of the possibilities inherent in the neuroengineering area is the creation of neural prostheses for the disabled, a process that requires engineers to be grounded in the science of the brain. Coleman has been working on creating technology for that kind of neural prostheses.

In order to increase awareness of their program and the field of neuroengineering the researchers will conduct a symposium on “Emerging Topics in Control and Modeling: Biomedical Systems” April 22 - 23 at the Beckman Institute.

Jones said they are looking at the training program as one that will endure and serve as a seedbed for future education and research ventures.

“Our intent is not just to build an IGERT program that serves 33 students and then disappears after five years,” he said. “We really want to build a concentration, kind of like a minor at the graduate level. I expect and certainly hope that in five years this will be a sustained program because it will have been working well and the students are receiving value from it.”

And there should be great value in a program that teaches researchers how to collaborate in an interdisciplinary project from the beginning.

“The question comes up: how do you build a neuroengineer? What does that mean?” Jones said. “Our goal is not to create someone who is really half and half because we think the disciplines are so big and advancing so quickly and the problems so complex, that it’s not really practical to train somebody to be a complete expert in both.

“The idea is we’re trying to train people who primarily have a home in one discipline. So the engineers will still be engineers and the neuroscientists will still be neuroscientists. But they will be neuroscientists with a lot of knowledge about the information processing side of engineering. The engineers will have a lot of understanding of how the brain works for specific things. In the end our goal is to get people up to a point where they can collaborate effectively with people from another discipline.”

This article is part of the Spring 2010 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.