Shaping the future: A Q&A with Wu Tsai Institute’s Kia Nobre
Kia Nobre really had no intention of leaving Oxford. A renowned cognitive neuroscientist, she’d chaired the venerable university’s Department of Experimental Psychology for several years and directed the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity, where she had done formative research.
Then, in early 2022, she was contacted by a colleague at Yale, where she had earned her Ph.D. in 1993, who asked if she might consider a role at the Wu Tsai Institute (WTI), the university’s new home for the study of cognition. “Several factors aligned and made me take pause and say, ‘Oh, maybe I’d like to think about this one,’” Nobre said.
This summer, Nobre returned to Yale as the inaugural director of WTI’s Center for Neurocognition and Behavior. Working with WTI Director Nick Turk-Browne and other leaders she is helping to develop the advanced WTI facilities, recruit new faculty and staff, mentor students and postdocs, and conduct outreach to university partners, local communities, and industry.
Nobre, who studies how the human brain anticipates and picks out important information from its surroundings and memories to guide behavior, is also the Wu Tsai Professor of Psychology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
She recently spoke with Yale News about what ultimately brought her back to Yale, her goals for the center, and having her perspectives flipped upside down. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What brought you back to Yale?
Kia Nobre: Yale was a deeply formative place for me. It’s where I became the scientist and the academic I am. But the opportunity also came at just the right juncture in my life. I’ve enjoyed doing a lot of great science, and my lab continues to be one of the main loves of my life. But over time I ended up doing a lot more leadership and service. I’ve gained so much myself from so many, so I like to be able to give something back. At Oxford, I was the head of a department, head of a center, part of the university council, on all the big committees. And I had gotten to a stage where I was interested in shaping the future of academia. I was thinking about how we need to start forming scientists who can thrive and contribute in a much more hybrid future. The problems facing society today are complex and interconnected requiring a much more collaborative scientific endeavor, both with academic institutions as well as with non-academic sectors.
The Wu Tsai Institute has the freedom of not being tethered to any specific school or department. It has the support of the greater institution and it’s well-funded. And importantly, once I met the directors of its other centers [Daniel Colón-Ramos, of the Center for Neurodevelopment and Plasticity, and John Lafferty, of the Center for Neurocomputation and Machine Intelligence], I realized these people are for real in the sense that they really do want to do things in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way.
The final piece was my husband, Luciano Floridi. He is a farsighted and intrepid philosopher who realized, many decades ago, that digital technologies would transform human understanding and society. He created the field of philosophy of information and over the years focused more and more on digital ethics. This is a major strategic focus for Yale, so it turned out to be an interesting opportunity for both of us. We could put all our experience to the test to build meaningful new initiatives to benefit science, academia, and ultimately society.
What are your goals as director of the Center for Neurocognition and Behavior?
Nobre: First and foremost, I like to lead by example. I want to continue being an interesting, relevant, trusted scientist.
Then, in terms of the center, there are two goals. One is enabling other people to do great science. We have a core facility named “BrainWorks” with the most advanced methods for measuring the human brain and behavior. We want to make sure it not only has all this amazing equipment but also provides people with know-how, training, guidance, feedback, and support to do the best science in a rigorous, collaborative, and open fashion. The second piece is what I’m thinking of as a new program of knowledge-sharing activities. It’s really about creating multilateral productive interactions between science and society and about equipping advanced graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to be the scientists of the future.
I meet with Daniel [Colón-Ramos], John [Lafferty], and Nick [Turk-Browne] every week. There’s a constant dialogue about how to make things more collaborative and interactive and how to make sure that the events that we put together or investments we make yield more than the sum of their parts. We get along really well. We’re all quite different, but we’re all completely harmonious and complementary.
What are your research interests?
Nobre: I’m interested in how the human brain makes mental experience. The methods we have today to measure the human brain are astonishing in many ways, compared with what they were when I started. In other ways, they’re super primitive compared with methods at the cellular and molecular levels that can only be applied to other organisms or preparations. So, the kind of science I can do best is more about trying to extract the principles of how brain networks and dynamics are organized to serve behavior. I can sketch the broad strokes, and researchers working in animal or cellular models can dig into the nitty gritty mechanisms.
Because of my broad interest, I study a topic that affects most if not all brain functions and therefore enables me to dabble in understanding all kinds of different things. I study what the field generally calls “attention,” but it’s not really attention as we normally define it. It’s about how the brain anticipates, selects, and prioritizes one thing over everything else, how it seeks out and focuses on what is relevant or interesting. This proactive and dynamic property of “focus” is essential for supporting perception, guiding actions, making decisions, understanding and producing language, learning and building memories for the future, planning… everything.
As a researcher, what excites you about BrainWorks?
Nobre: So many things. We have some first-of-their-kind equipment. For instance, we have brand new methods to measure magnetic fields in people’s brains, which will let us track brain activity with high resolution while people move about. So far, to measure brain activity, we’ve had to put people into these big MRI machines, where they can’t move or behave naturally. But with our new tools, we can make neuroscience immersive, ask all kinds of different questions, and study how the brain supports real-world cognition.
But I also really want to bring in new types of scientists. For example, it would be great to welcome people from robotics and engineering interested in a deeper understanding of human-machine interactions. It’s not just about using the technology to understand the human brain. It’s also about bringing our sciences together into a richer ecosystem of discovery and innovation.
Since you’ve returned to Yale, have you been reflecting at all on your early years here?
Nobre: I reflect all the time about everything. I’m an overthinker. But yes. My graduate school advisor taught me by example. There was such pride in doing the most rigorous, most well-controlled science and doing it in a way that we knew was completely reliable. One of the things that brings me a great sense of fulfillment as a scientist is the thought that anyone who reads a paper of mine will instinctively trust it because they know the design and methods have been carried out to the highest standards. And I really got those roots here.
My love for innovating methods also started here. Functional MRI was discovered when I was a graduate student, and I was on the first paper to use fully non-invasive fMRI to investigate human cognition. That method completely transformed the study of the human brain and mind. That kind of pioneering spirit has never left me.
What would you like people to know about you?
Nobre: The thing that I love more than anything else is to learn and to see things in new ways. I am honestly, earnestly, really curious about understanding other perspectives. Almost every discipline intersects with the human mind. I’m looking forward to having my perspectives turned inside out and upside down and learning from others.