At Yale, new neuroscience institute to unravel the mysteries of cognition
The human brain is the source and conduit of all ideas, beliefs, and dreams.
It drives us to produce art, literature, and science, to feel and describe love, to invent for survival and diversion alike.
Through it, we perceive, we wonder, we question: Why? How? What if?
Researchers at Yale University have been studying the brain for generations. Now, a new and historic philanthropic gift is launching an ambitious research enterprise devoted to the study of human cognition that will supercharge Yale’s neuroscience initiative and position the university to reveal the brain in its full, dynamic complexity.
The gift, made by Yale alumnus Joseph C. Tsai ’86, ’90 J.D., and his wife, Clara Wu Tsai, will establish the Wu Tsai Institute, a new kind of research organization that bridges the psychological, biological, and computational sciences. The Institute will pursue a mission to understand human cognition and explore human potential by sparking interdisciplinary inquiry. It will harness and amplify Yale’s strengths in neuroscience broadly defined, joining hundreds of researchers in a university-wide effort to understand the brain and mind at all levels — from molecules and cells to circuits, systems, and behavior.
Research into the building blocks and emergent properties of the brain will address fundamental questions about human nature and potential: How do countless neurons and synapses transform sensations into perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs? What enables us to learn so much as young children, and can this be reawakened later in life? Why do we struggle to remember the past and pay attention to the present? Which cognitive capabilities are difficult for computers to mimic and why?
The answers to such questions offer the possibility of enlivening human experience, advancing mutual understanding, and improving society — making education and organizations more effective, physical and mental health more durable, and technology more natural and supportive at work and home.
“Understanding cognition is one of the greatest challenges in the history of science,” said Yale President Peter Salovey, a social psychologist and pioneer of the study of emotional intelligence. “Thanks to the vision and generosity of Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai, Yale will pursue a thrilling new approach to the intensive, long-term study of the brain and the wonders of the mind. This is a vast undertaking that advances Yale as a leader in scientific research, while promising insights that will improve life for people around the world.”
Joe Tsai is co-founder and executive vice chairman of the global internet technology company Alibaba Group. Clara Wu Tsai, a former executive at American Express and Taobao Hong Kong, leads the family foundation’s work in supporting scientific research, economic mobility, social justice, and creativity in the arts. The Tsais are also owners of several professional sports franchises, including the Brooklyn Nets, New York Liberty, and San Diego Seals. Major global philanthropists and devoted Yale benefactors, the Tsais have made previous gifts establishing the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY), as well as supporting the Yale men’s and women’s lacrosse programs, the Department of Computer Science, and Yale Law School.
“The world’s great universities are built to pursue consequential questions, and nothing is more foundational than understanding the mystery of the human brain,” Joe Tsai said. “Today, the science and technology community is obsessed with artificial intelligence, but how do we know if computers can outsmart humans if we do not fully appreciate our own cognitive capacities? Clara and I believe that Yale has the right combination of people, resources, and collaborative culture to lead to a better understanding of this big question.”
“Interdisciplinary collaboration is fundamental to success in the life sciences field,” said Clara Wu Tsai. “Our foundation is built on that very premise, and, in all of our efforts, Joe and I work to bring great scientists together across fields and areas of expertise. From the maturation of the mind and brain to the development of new cognitive computational models and the study of human behavior, scientists at the Wu Tsai Institute will be working on the very cutting edge of the cognitive sciences.”
Yale starts from a position of strength and draws on a distinguished legacy of faculty in neuroscience, including Nobel Prize winners and National Academy of Sciences members who made discoveries that helped lay the biological and psychological foundations of the field.
Today, about 140 Yale research groups are engaged in research related to neuroscience in departments throughout the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (e.g., linguistics; mathematics; molecular biophysics and biochemistry; molecular, cellular and developmental biology; philosophy; psychology; statistics and data science), School of Medicine (e.g., cell biology; cellular and molecular physiology; Child Study Center; genetics; neurology; neuroscience; neurosurgery; psychiatry), and School of Engineering & Applied Science (e.g., computer science; biomedical engineering; electrical engineering; mechanical engineering and materials science). The Wu Tsai Institute will unite these scholars — in some cases physically and in all cases through shared resources and facilities — while expanding their ranks. The Institute will recruit new faculty, staff, and students, and will drive collaboration through innovative programs and events in which rising and established experts from different disciplines influence and inspire each other, accelerating the pace of discovery.
“Neuroscience is a special opportunity for Yale because we have many allied strengths already,” said Provost Scott Strobel, a biochemist. “By organizing ourselves in a way that links them to a common purpose, we can make huge leaps forward. The Wu Tsai Institute will enable discoveries that transcend disciplines, embodying our conviction that the greatest advances in science depend not only on penetrating subject-matter expertise, ingenuity, and perseverance, but also on the co-mingling and creative cooperation of experts to produce entirely new ways of thinking.”
New hub for neuroscience
The Wu Tsai Institute will occupy space at 100 College St., a light-filled structure in a reborn area of downtown New Haven between Yale’s medical and central campuses that is being renovated to house offices, labs, and classrooms. The Institute will move into the building by fall 2022, along with the Department of Psychology from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the Department of Neuroscience from the School of Medicine, and colleagues from more than half a dozen other departments, facilitating interaction among researchers across the university and beyond.
Led by Yale psychologist and inaugural director Nicholas Turk-Browne, the Wu Tsai Institute’s vision is uniquely interdisciplinary and cooperative.
“The Institute will provide resources and incentives — human, technological, social, and structural — to make daring intellectual partnerships appealing and fruitful,” he said. “Whether sparked by a spontaneous remark in a common room, a question from left field after a talk, or a more intentional collaboration in which research groups co-design experiments from scratch, the success of the Institute in making headway on understanding human cognition requires more than business-as-usual: It requires bold, unorthodox scientific expeditions.”
The Institute is organized with this guiding spirit in mind. Embedded within the Institute’s global structure will be three cutting-edge academic centers. Approaching the common problem of cognition from different and complementary perspectives, the centers will provide local structure through which new laboratories, facilities, and services facilitate vanguard neuroscience research:
- The Center for Neurodevelopment and Plasticity will focus on the brain’s ability to form new connections and modify existing ones through experience and development. It will uncover how the brain learns and retains information, through self-organization of molecules and cells, with the possibility of one day preserving or restoring plasticity.
- The Center for Neurocognition and Behavior will identify and monitor brain states associated with perception, attention, and memory. Through advanced brain imaging (such as fMRI, MEG, and EEG) and pharmacological approaches, it will measure and manipulate the brain systems underlying these states to reveal their causal role in behavior, with the long-term potential of allowing us to gain more control over our mind.
- The Center for Neurocomputation and Machine Intelligence will integrate scientific approaches through shared computational frameworks. Machine learning algorithms will synthesize and translate a vast universe of neuroscientific data. This in turn will enable new computational models of cognition and behavior grounded in principles of molecular, cellular, and circuit function, advancing machine intelligence toward the capabilities and flexibility of human cognition.
A defining feature of the Wu Tsai Institute is the interdependence of these centers, said Turk-Browne, who studies the interaction and development of fundamental cognitive processes in the human brain. The centers are not departments, he said, nor will they become silos within the Institute. Rather, the success of each will depend upon input from and collaboration with the others.
“Scientific interest in the brain originated in the magic of the mind,” he said. “Neuroscience as a field then branched off into subfields studying the brain at different scales, using different tools and concepts, and affiliating with different neighboring disciplines. This has led to rapid progress in recent decades. Now is the time to reunite these subfields and together address the founding aspiration of neuroscience — to reveal the inner workings of the mind through an integrated understanding of the brain. Achieving this integration across scales, tools, and disciplines with data science will enable powerful new theories and insights about what makes us human.”
The Wu Tsai Institute will catalyze this integration and will provide a global framework, offering resources, programs, and activities that span the breadth of neuroscience and connected fields. It will allow Yale to recruit several world-class neuroscientists into endowed professorships, create an internal grant mechanism to encourage high-risk/high-reward ideas, begin a new independent postdoctoral fellowship program, expand dramatically the number of neuroscience-related graduate positions, and launch a paid internship program for undergraduates to inspire the next generation of scientists and scientifically minded citizens. These initiatives strive to connect the subfields of neuroscience through an executive committee of faculty leaders; a steering committee of stakeholders across the university; joint appointments spanning departments and schools; co-mentorship of students and postdocs; support for interdisciplinary research collaborations; and community-building workshops, retreats, and seminars. All activities will be guided and evaluated by Giovanna Guerrero-Medina, a member of the Institute staff dedicated to fostering diversity and excellence.
“The creation of new initiatives provides an opportunity to confront historical and ongoing systemic inequities in neuroscience and to do better,” she said. “We will design programs and processes from the ground up to promote equity and inclusion for underrepresented groups across race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.”
Virtuous cycle of discovery
The scientific ambitions of the Institute resonate with two of Yale’s five major scientific priorities for the coming decade: neuroscience and integrative data science.
“Data science brings a mathematical and computational toolkit that can be applied across scales and subfields of neuroscience,” said John Lafferty, Yale data scientist and member of the executive committee. “This provides a common language for talking about molecules and behavior in the same breath, for linking cellular activity to blood oxygenation. At the same time, few machine learning algorithms were designed for neuroscience data or with knowledge of key problems in the field, creating the opportunity for a new wave of approaches. The goal is not to recreate the brain in silico but rather to learn principles behind how the brain works and to create algorithms that follow these strategies. This will create a computational proving ground in which to deepen understanding of cognition, with new models that, for example, accurately represent the beliefs of others or have the richness and capacity of human memory.”
Major advances will require a virtuous cycle between data and models, experimentalists and theorists. Spatial arrangements in 100 College will encourage such feedback loops. The computational sciences will be situated on a middle floor between the psychological sciences above and the biological sciences below — a physical reminder of their central role in bridging the Institute’s mission. To foster intellectual collisions, the middle floor will also offer flexible shared spaces conducive to interaction, among them a large common room with sweeping views, whiteboards, and refreshments, hoteling offices for researchers visiting from across campus and across the world, and attractive forums for workshops, symposia, and events.
These communal spaces will be complemented by purpose-built facilities equipped with the latest neuroscientific tools. In a welcoming and inspiring atmosphere on the ground floor, for example, the Institute will house state-of-the-art technologies for studying the human brain in action. Designed for exploration and discovery, the new facility will enable big research ideas, hands-on educational opportunities, and alumni and community engagement.
In these and other ways, the Wu Tsai Institute represents an opportunity to transform how Yale and the academy pursue inquiries of great breadth and complexity.
“The power of the idea behind the Institute is in enabling Yale’s researchers to find new intellectual connections and then providing resources to pursue questions at these intersections,” said Daniel Colón-Ramos, Yale neuroscientist and cell biologist and executive committee member. “Like a synaptic cleft between neurons, an axon between cortical areas, or the open air between brains in a social world, subfields of neuroscience vary in the distance that will need to be traveled. But as with messages delivered by chemicals, electrical pulses, or verbal speech, conversation, collaboration, and discovery narrow these distances and produce larger networks with greater knowledge and capabilities. Filling the space between these disciplines will allow us to answer the biggest whys and the grandest hows.”
Expanding the number of students and postdocs encourages the multidisciplinary work that will be an Institute hallmark and also allows Yale to reinforce its commitment to diversity and excellence across the sciences. “Students and postdocs are one of the best ways to bridge research areas,” said Colón-Ramos. “Because they’re conducting and shaping their labs’ research day to day, and because they’re in the midst of building new skills, they are often the ones to seek out collaborators.”
The Institute’s mission and organization stand to deepen connections throughout Yale.
“The formation of the Wu Tsai Institute will lead to a new era of partnership between the School of Medicine and Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” said Nancy J. Brown, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “We cannot solve the pressing questions in neuroscience without interdisciplinary approaches. The Institute can serve as a model for collaborations in other areas.”
Indeed, the Institute will yield collaborative opportunities and benefit from scholarship far beyond fields traditionally involved in neuroscience research.
“The relation between mind and brain is among the deepest and most profound questions that we face,” said Tamar Gendler, philosopher and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “To understand it, we must draw on methods and insights from across disciplines and approaches: aesthetic, ethical, social, biological, physical, and technical. I am excited to help realize the bold and imaginative promise of the Wu Tsai Institute, with key engagement from fellow FAS leaders, including deans Alan Gerber in the social sciences and Jeffrey Brock in the natural sciences and engineering, and department chairs from across the academic divisions.”
Alongside the research mission — and integral to it — the Institute will serve Yale’s teaching mission. In addition to providing for new postdoctoral fellows, it will expand graduate education in neuroscience through support of the well-established and highly successful Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program, as well as other top Ph.D. programs across the university. At the undergraduate level, it will fund summer fellowships and year-round research opportunities for students in Yale’s fast-growing neuroscience major and related majors. Established in 2017 by psychologist and now Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, the neuroscience major has more than 80 students. The Institute will help prepare them for graduate and professional school, and for empirical, evidence-based decision-making regardless of career path.
“The Wu Tsai Institute is a marvelous expression of our ambitions in neuroscience, in data science, and in engineering, and it will be a major instrument of their fulfillment,” said Brock, dean of science and dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science. “It represents the bold, creative organizational thinking that will serve our faculty and students well as they strive to advance knowledge and make the breakthroughs that benefit all humankind. We are grateful to Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai for their vision and their confidence as we at Yale aim to push scientific boundaries.”
For more information about the Wu Tsai Institute and to sign up to receive updates, please visit the Institute website at wti.yale.edu.