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Engineer, research collaborators team up on computational neuroscience training

David Schulz and Satish Nair pose near a microscope.

David Schulz, associate professor of biological sciences, and Satish Nair, professor of electrical and computer engineering, submitted one of only three researcher training course proposals to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) aimed at cross-training researchers in computational neuroscience. Photo by Hannah Sturtecky.

Computational neuroscience is a new interdisciplinary research field that has come into its own, as advances in neuroscience have resulted in the simultaneous generation of large amounts of new data and increased computational power along with the evolution of new computational approaches.

The National Academy of Engineering lists reverse engineering the brain as one of the 14 grand challenges for engineering in the next century. Integrative and interdisciplinary training for students and researchers in biological, psychological and physical sciences is necessary in order to understand how the activity of humans’ 100 billion individual neurons give rise to behaviors ranging from movement to thought.

Satish Nair, a University of Missouri professor of electrical and computer engineering, and three MU faculty collaborators submitted one of only three researcher training course proposals to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) aimed at cross-training researchers in computational neuroscience. The course will provide training to pre- and post-docs, medical students, and junior faculty who are beginning or anticipating potential careers/collaborations in neuroscience.

NIH awarded Nair just over $500,000 (National Institute of Mental Health 1R25MH109122-01) for a two-week short course to be offered annually for three years. Nair’s project collaborators are Associate Professor David J. Schulz and Professor Andrew McClellan, both MU neurobiologists, and evaluator Associate Professor David Bergin from the MU College of Education.

Each year, 24 applicants will be selected to participate in a two-week summer training course that will introduce neuroscience concepts and provide hands-on training as well as individualized projects. The latter will be customized to each participant’s specific research interests. NIH will cover all associated costs for participants and MU project faculty will provide them follow-up support for a year. The first course is scheduled for June 6 to 17.

Interested parties may view details of the project and apply for the course at its website. The deadline to apply is March 1.

Nair has been working collaboratively with neuroscience researchers since the late 1990s, work he said he finds fascinating. Schulz said his interest goes back to his postdoctoral days when he was looking at fundamental properties of nervous systems and the changes that occurred because of such things as spinal cord injuries. The pair has worked collaboratively on both teaching and research projects for the past 10 years.

“Although we knew the brain was similar to a computer, we did not have data to study it until recently,” said Nair. “How does it run? What is its operating system, and how might it malfunction?

“David [Schulz] and I got funding to start an undergraduate course,” he said in reference to a popular interdisciplinary neuroscience course the pair has offered for the past nine years using seed funding from the National Science Foundation Course and Curriculum Initiative.

“We have tested it all out at the undergraduate level somewhat ahead of the curve nationally,” said Nair. “Now we are really getting into research curriculum and research, a long-time goal.

“Neuroscientists are generating lots of data, and models and computation are essential to make sense of what the data may be telling us and how, for example, we can design better medications to ameliorate a host of psychiatric disorders.”