The Yale committee tasked with charting a new vision for Yale’s contributions to the sciences released its long-awaited report last Thursday. Prominent among the many recommendations in the report was an ambitious plan for neuroscience at Yale — a new institute designed to bolster the University’s neuroscience research by providing dedicated space for interdisciplinary, collaborative work.
The University Science Strategy Committee named the creation of the institute and other recommendations for the neuroscience departments at the Yale School of Medicine and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences as one of five “top priority” ideas for the University’s investment in STEM.
Though the neuroscience department has begun to implement some of the committee’s recommendations, many of the details have yet to be ironed out — including identifying a space large enough to house the new institute and specifying the long-term changes to graduate neuroscience education.
“Currently, Yale researchers in neuroscience are distributed throughout campus, and this represents a barrier for synergies and collaborations,” said committee member Daniel Colón-Ramos, a professor of cell biology and neuroscience at the medical school. “The report, which was created after seeking input from the neuroscience community, thoughtfully addresses this barrier. Specifically, I believe the recommendations proposed in the report, of co-location of neuroscience researchers from different fields, could be transformative for Yale.”
The USSC report arrives two years after University President Peter Salovey made STEM an investment priority of the University. In his 2016 statement on the subject, Salovey cited science performance as a differentiator between then-14th-ranked Yale and higher-ranking research universities worldwide.
University Provost Ben Polak tasked the USSC with identifying promising areas across the University for STEM investment. The committee’s recommendations and ideas will be implemented over the next 10 years and will likely drive Yale’s next capital campaign, a large-scale fundraising effort expected to launch within the next year or so.
“There is significant interest in providing more space for the neurosciences and … addressing this to bring the neurosciences from the college and medical school together,” said Robert Alpern, dean of the medical school. “Ideally this would be accomplished with one large building. However, there are not yet specific plans as to how this would be accomplished.”
The report recommends the University set aside enough space to accommodate 35 to 40 research groups, a vivarium and core facilities, as well as meeting spaces and classrooms — but it does not suggest any specific location for the institute, just that it be positioned between the medical and central campuses. Marina Picciotto, deputy director of the medical school’s Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, said an ideal location would be the 14-story, 426,000 square-foot Alexion Pharmaceuticals building, located on 100 College St.
Since Alexion announced in September that it would leave its New Haven headquarters, the fate of the building has been uncertain. Bruce Alexander, then-vice president for New Haven and state affairs, told the News at the time that Yale was once interested in using Alexion’s laboratory space but backed down when the company said it planned to use the entire building.
When asked if Yale would acquire the building to house the Yale Neuroscience Institute, Sreeganga Chandra, the School of Medicine’s deputy chair for neuroscience, said it was still up in the air.
The Yale Neuroscience Institute will bring together the University’s various neuroscience faculty and their facilities, which are currently spread across campus. According to Picciotto, who was one of over 100 faculty members interviewed by the USSC, the new institute will not act as an overarching neuroscience department for the University but rather will facilitate cross-department collaboration.
“[The institute] will be an agora — a meeting place where people with common interests talk together, work together and have meetings together,” she said.
Still, other institutions see advantages to spreading their faculty across campus. Rosalind Segal, director of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Neuroscience, explained that Harvard’s neuroscience faculty are strategically positioned close to collaborators from other departments, such as computer science, or close to relevant facilities, like the hospitals associated with Harvard’s medical school. This structure still inspires debate among the neuroscience faculty, she said, despite its dispersion.
The report’s suggestions will not only affect the neuroscience faculty and their research but will also impact the University’s neuroscience students, though how exactly remains to be seen.
Yale currently offers two graduate neuroscience programs — the Biological and Biomedical Science neuroscience track and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program.
The report calls for doubling the size of the INP, changing its core curriculum and increasing its teaching faculty. Beyond those recommendations, Picciotto said, it is uncertain how the program will change over the long term.
Leah Fleming GRD ’22 told the News she is very satisfied with her training in the INP and expressed general optimism about the coming changes to neuroscience at Yale.
“I think [the institute] would really set us apart from other schools and ease the path for the open, collaborative environment this field thrives on,” said Fleming. “Having a central, physical space would allow more members of the community from the medical campus, Science Hill and psychology buildings to participate in neuroscience-related events and seminars.”
The USSC convened nearly 60 times over 16 months to draft its report.