Wu Tsai Institute postdocs bridge disciplines in the study of cognition

The Wu Tsai Institute’s first postdoc cohort will study human cognition, working at the intersections of different fields of research.
Kristen Brennand and Meilin Fernandez Garcia

Kristen Brennand, right, who will co-mentor Meng Jia, checks in with current postdoctoral fellow Meilin Fernandez Garcia.

Yale’s Wu Tsai Institute (WTI) will welcome this spring its first cohort of postdoctoral fellows, six scholars chosen carefully for their interest in interdisciplinary research into the mind and brain and their commitment to inclusive research environments.

The postdoc program embodies everything the new institute aims to do: bring together researchers from different fields and perspectives to develop a deep understanding of what makes us human.

The study of human cognition crosses many fields of neuroscience research, from biology to psychology to data science, said Nick Turk-Browne, professor of psychology and inaugural director of WTI. “We’ve made remarkable progress in each of these fields over the past few decades,” he said.

The urgency now, he said, is to bring the ideas that have emerged together.

It isn’t easy to bridge fields like this, to connect work that’s happening at different scales, using different tools, and often pursuing different goals,” said Turk-Browne. “But the next generation of researchers feels less constrained by disciplinary boundaries and is more open to a range of ideas and methods, positioning them to lead the way in tackling questions at the intersections of these different fields. Here at the Wu Tsai Institute, postdocs will be an essential part of our effort to unite disparate approaches.”

The first group of WTI postdocs includes De-Shaine Murray (straddling neurology, computer science, and electrical engineering); Meng Jia (psychiatry and neurology); Ashlea Segal (psychology and neuroscience); Josué Ortega Caro (neuroscience and computer science); Weikang Shi (psychology, neuroscience, and psychiatry); and Jacob Miller (psychiatry and neuroscience).

Wu Tsai Institute postdoctoral fellows
Top row: De-Shaine Murray, Meng Jia, and Jacob Miller. Bottom row: Josué Ortega Caro, Ashlea Segal, and Weikang Shi.

It was the promise of interdisciplinary collaboration that attracted De-Shaine Murray, who will be working in the labs of Hitten Zaveri, an assistant professor of neurology, Abhishek Bhattacharjee, an associate professor of computer science, and Rajit Manohar, the John C. Malone Professor of Electrical Engineering.

The Wu Tsai Institute is creating a hub to bring people together, and as soon as I saw that, I thought, ‘That’s something I’d like to be a part of,’” he said.

Since it is the first postdoc cohort for the new institute — which was launched last year with a gift from Joseph C. Tsai ’86, ’90 J.D. and Clara Wu Tsai — there was an opportunity to be very intentional about the program design, says Kelley Remole, managing director of WTI.

We wanted to make sure that our postdocs had an inclusive, supportive environment where they can learn from their mentors, develop new skills, prepare for the next stages of their careers, and do truly incredible research.”

Making connections

The WTI postdoctoral fellowship covers salary, provides training funds, and carves out dedicated time for professional development. Unlike outside grants, which often limit research funds to within a particular field or department, the fellowship doesn’t just allow for interdisciplinary work, it requires it. Each postdoc must have at least two mentors from different departments.

Trainees are almost always better off with two mentors than with one,” said Kristen Brennand, a professor of psychiatry who will be co-mentoring incoming postdoc Meng Jia alongside Chris Cotsapas, a professor of neurology. “You get double the networking connections, double the mentorship opportunities, double the lab meetings, double the skillsets to tap into. It lets you do projects that are in some ways too risky to do in one lab because you’ve got double the expertise.”

Ashlea Segal says she’s already seen the value in being mentored by researchers with different expertise, in getting to see how they think about questions and how they seek solutions. “You can learn to think in different ways,” she said. Segal will be working in the labs of Avram Holmes, associate professor of psychology, and Nenad Sestan, the Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Neuroscience, as she explores how genetic variation leads to cognitive and behavioral differences.

The institute invited faculty members from different departments to together pitch project ideas that were not fully formed so that postdocs, once recruited, could help shape them. As part of their applications, faculty members also were asked to share their mentoring philosophies and their thoughts on how to promote inclusive environments — something faculty members found refreshing.

David van Dijk, an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, says it’s an important consideration. “We’re creating opportunities and it’s important that they’re equal and fair.”

From the 28 applications they received, the WTI team selected four projects, and then released a wide call for applications. Candidates whose interests did not align with those projects but still fit within WTI’s mission were also encouraged to apply.

Two of the new postdocs — Murray and Miller — applied to the program through this second option. Miller will be working with John Murray, associate professor of psychiatry, and Amy Arnsten, the Albert E. Kent Professor of Neuroscience, to understand the neural mechanisms underlying cognitive abilities like attention and working memory across different species.

Like the faculty members, postdoc applicants had to include a statement about their contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This focus on inclusivity stood out to the postdocs.

De-Shaine Murray is currently the director of development for Black in Neuro, an organization that promotes the visibility of Black neuroscientists and advocates for more retention in the field by working with academic institutions. While one’s identity is not the only important factor when it comes to the workplace, he said, it’s disingenuous to say it doesn’t play a role, and it shouldn’t be ignored.

I think a lot of times in the academic environment, we like to think that science is apolitical, that it is not shaped in any way by the people that do it,” he said. “But my experiences so far have and will inform how I do my science. It’s important that we recognize these influences and the inequality that exists as a result of that. I really do applaud the WTI for having that baked in from the start.”

Josué Ortega Caro said it was reassuring knowing mentors had been selected for their commitment to fostering healthy environments where their postdocs would thrive. Working in the labs of van Dijk and Jessica Cardin, an associate professor of neuroscience, Ortega Caro will apply the principles of natural language processing — an approach that gives computers the ability to read and understand written and spoken language — to uncover the underlying rules of cognition.

When considering how he wanted to contribute to an inclusive environment at WTI, he thought about his experiences with two programs aimed at fostering diversity in computer science and in research more broadly. Serendipity, a program in Peru, where he’s from, helps undergraduates apply to graduate school in the United States or Europe. The second, Latinx in AI, aims to create community for Latinx people working in the field of artificial intelligence.

I think diversity initiatives need to be focused on what the community needs,” said Ortega Caro. “What are the steps that are most difficult for people to achieve? What are the things making it more difficult for them to transition to different stages of research or academia? Based on the answers to those questions, you can focus your resources on those aspects.”

Building networks

Because the research projects spanned different fields, finding postdocs who could serve as the bridges between disciplines was key. Typically, researchers announce postdoctoral positions through their own professional networks. But because WTI cast a much wider net, the institute was able to reach a broader audience and, ultimately, found candidates ideally suited for the open positions, said Giovanna Guerrero-Medina, assistant director for diversity, equity, and inclusion at WTI, who designed the new program and helped disseminate the opportunity broadly.

For some teams, that meant finding a candidate whose skillsets already straddled the mentors’ fields. For others, it meant finding someone with a well-developed skillset in one area and an interest in building their skills in the other.

Brennand says that her postdoc, Meng Jia, falls into the latter category and that postdoc positions are excellent opportunities to pivot. Jia will explore the molecular basis of personality by looking at how genes associated with neuroticism affect gene expression, cell function, and neural systems.

Meng has a really cool skillset that’s never been applied to this kind of question before,” said Brennand. “We have this vision of how we think it might work, but as she gets her feet under her, we’re going to leave it up to her.”

When beginning the postdoc search, van Dijk said he expected to hire someone who was more experienced in his area of research than Cardin’s. “But we ended up finding someone who knows both,” he said. “We’re very lucky.”

Ortega Caro felt it was the perfect match as well. When he saw the description of van Dijk and Cardin’s project, he said, “That’s exactly what I can do.”

Weikang Shi will be working with Steve Chang, associate professor of psychology, Anirvan Nandy, assistant professor of neuroscience, and Monika Jadi, assistant professor of psychiatry, and he’ll be studying the neural bases of cooperative social interactions using behavioral, computational, and neural techniques. About the project, he said, “Everything kind of matched what I want for the future.” As a graduate student, Shi studies economic decision-making. But when considering his ideal postdoc position, he wanted to study social interactions and use a different method of research than what he uses now. The WTI project offered both of those new directions he had hoped to find.

Segal found herself in a different situation. She knew she wanted to develop a new skillset as a postdoc, but she wasn’t set on a particular direction just yet. “Rightly or wrongly, I kind of just wanted to follow my curiosity,” she said. When she came across Holmes and Sestan’s WTI project, it excited her. “I thought, oh this is what I want to be doing,” said Segal. “The research topic is really an extension of and opportunity to upscale from my current Ph.D. work.”

Early development

Because this is a brand-new postdoc program at a brand-new institute, the first cohort of fellows will be instrumental in helping shape both. It will also be important to keep tabs on whether the program is supporting the postdocs in the way that they need and fueling interdisciplinary work in the way that it intends, said Guerrero-Medina.

Avram Holmes says success will be reflected in the scientific discoveries made through this approach and in the strength of the postdocs’ career trajectories after they leave WTI. The institute will also conduct yearly check-ins with the postdocs and mentors.

Brennand says she hopes that in a few years, the benefit of this approach will be evident. “Then we can say we’ve demonstrated it’s possible to do this right and do it well, and here’s our roadmap of how we did it.”

This is an important moment for the six postdocs and for the institute. The postdocs are wrapping up their time as students and starting their first jobs as young researchers. And their arrival will be a milestone for the young institute, said Remole.

Any time you bring researchers together in a new way, you’re going to spur new science,” said Brennand. And sometimes all you need to make that connection is a little nudge, like the WTI’s call for projects, she said. “I’m just thrilled to see this investment in neuroscience in general and in community-building specifically.”

It’s rare to have an institute and a university that value multidisciplinary and cross-field research,” said Holmes. “This is a tremendous opportunity.”

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Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643