Early career scientists named as inaugural Mong Fellows in Neurotech

The inaugural Mong Family Foundation Fellows in Neurotech were named on June 17 and went to three pairs of early career scientists. They will work jointly under the mentorship of faculty across Cornell to advance technologies that promise to provide insight into how brains work, as well as strategies to fix them when they break.

The Fellowships are part of the multimillion dollar seed grant from the Mong Family Foundation, through Stephen Mong ’92, MEN ’93, MBA ’02, which launched the Cornell Neurotech collaboration between the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Engineering in 2015. The collaboration’s mission is to develop technologies and powerful new tools needed to reveal the inner workings of the brain, with a particular focus on how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.

“By applying cutting edge physical tools to significant neuroscience problems, the inaugural Fellowship  projects fit the vision of Cornell Neurotech perfectly,” says Chris Xu, Mong Family Foundation Director of Cornell Neurotech-Engineering and professor of applied and engineering physics. “The Mong Fellows will greatly help establish and strengthen the connections between technology and neuroscience at Cornell, and these collaborations, facilitated by the Mong fellows program, will continue to put Cornell at the forefront of neurotech development."

“The projects are at the very front of technologies and analytical tools for understanding the brain,” adds Joseph Fetcho, Director of Cornell Neurotech – Arts and Sciences and professor of neurobiology and behavior.  “The fellows represent super bright, collaborative, nascent scientific leaders with a remarkable breadth of talents, from physics, engineering and biology.  Their collaborations will seed a future where such broad interdisciplinary interactions are the norm.

The first team includes Mong Senior Fellow David Bulkin, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, and Mong Junior Fellow Yiting Xie, a graduate student in the field of electrical and computer engineering. The team’s faculty mentors are Melissa Warden, an assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Anthony Reeves, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The team is working to bridge the impasse between functional and structural data in intact brains. Because nerve cells are remarkably heterogeneous in their electrical activity as well as in their structure and molecular composition, understanding exactly what neurons do requires rigorous links between the activity of individual nerve cells and the details of their structure and molecular composition. Bulkin and Xie will develop imaging tools and computer algorithms to identify the same cells with micron resolution in the living animal and in an intact cleared brain in which the neurons are molecularly marked. 

“The work promises to provide unprecedented ties between function and the structure and molecular properties of neurons anywhere in the brain,” say the researchers. “These ties are critical for revealing how the brain works normally and what changes in disease states.”

The second team is made up of Mong Junior Fellow Mitch Pender, a graduate student in the field of biomedical engineering, and Mong Junior Fellow Changwoo Seo, a graduate student in the field of neurobiology and behavior.  Faculty mentors are Warden and Nozomi Nishimura, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

The team is taking a “barcode approach” to neuronal activity in the brain. One of the major challenges in neuroscience is to monitor and separate the activity of nerve cells on the millisecond time scales over which they are active to drive behavior. Pender and Seo will develop a tool to monitor the activity of many individual neurons at high temporal resolution in an intact brain using a mix of light-emitting proteins as tags. The spectrum of the emitted light will enable them to separate the activity of the individual cells – each cell having, in effect, a spectral bar code that can be used to read out their activity.

“This approach involves a mix of chemistry to optimize probes to sense neural firing, imaging technology to detect weak signals, and the application of the new tools to probe changes in the brain associated with a model of depression,” say the researchers. “Our work pushes forward the technologies for monitoring neuronal activity and promises to provide insight into the changes in brain function associated with depression.”

The third team consists of Mong Junior Fellow Sam Whitehead , a graduate student in the field of physics, and Mong Junior Fellow Teja Pratap Bollu , a graduate student in the field of neurobiology and behavior. Faculty Mentors are Itai Cohen, associate professor of physics, and Jesse Goldberg, assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior, both in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The team seeks to reveal the fundamental units for control of movement. Since understanding the brain is, at its core, a problem of relating the neuronal activity and circuits in the brain to the behavior they produce, the team will develop a new suite of behavioral analysis tools to reveal the fundamental building blocks for control of movement and optogenetic perturbations (turning neurons on and off with light) to determine how these building blocks are encoded in the brain.

“Our work will offer direct insight into how the brain controls behavior (which nearly always involves movement), with implications for understanding what happens when movements are disrupted in illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease,” say the researchers.

A version of this story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences

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