Krasnow Institute Advances with New Labs, Research and Researchers

Posted: January 25, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: January 25, 2010 at 10:12 am

By James Greif

Professor Dan Cox, right, discusses Krasnow's new confocal microscope with doctoral student Eswar Iyer. Photo by Nicolas Tan

Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study has just opened a new wing of its Fairfax Campus building, but the expansion of the 13-year old building isn’t the only news about the innovative research institute. The addition will be home to new lab space, new equipment and new researchers.

“To get up and go to work each day at a place where scientists from every discipline are collaborating and moving forward our knowledge of how mind emerges from brain — that is my idea of the best job in the world,” says Jim Olds, Krasnow director and professor of neuroscience.

New Researchers Expand Institute’s Range

Dan Cox, graduate program director for the biosciences doctoral and biology master’s degree programs, has moved his lab from the Prince William Campus to the new space at the Krasnow Institute. He now also directs the institute’s new Confocal Imaging Core and will oversee use of the institute’s new confocal microscope by Mason faculty members and affiliated researchers.

This microscope will allow researchers and students across several disciplines to view high-quality specimen images and reconstruct the images in three dimensions. Cox will use the microscope for his research on how nervous systems are “wired” and how they are controlled from a molecular biology perspective.

Nadine Kabbani, assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Neuroscience, has also recently joined the institute’s faculty. Her research focuses on how the brain reacts to substance addiction, specifically looking at molecular signal transduction and nicotinic receptors in the brain. Scientists such as Kabbani believe that research in this area could lead to more effective treatments for addiction and schizophrenia.

Another new addition to the Krasnow faculty is Robert Lipsky, director of neuroscience research at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Lipsky, who has a lab in the new wing, will be working with Olds specifically on research related to the role of genetics in the development and function of the nervous system and translating this research in a clinical setting, especially as it relates to post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Doctoral students Srividya Chandramouli Iyer, Mikolaj Sulkowski and others work at a lab bench in the new Functional Geonomics Lab in Krasnow's new wing. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Lipsky’s arrival continues an ongoing partnership between the university and Inova Health System. The relationship includes research collaborations across several disciplines, cooperation on sponsored research, as well as lab space at the university for Inova researchers and lab space at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Mason researchers.

“This is a new phase in our partnership with Inova,” says Olds. “They have the clinical material; we have the wet labs. We have experience working with the NIH in terms of sponsored research, but we haven’t had access to clinical material. This partnership is a natural fit for both the university and Inova, and we look forward to conducting mutually beneficial research for many years to come.”

Another phase of the building construction is expected to be completed in early 2011, and the institute is fund raising for a third phase, which would allow all affiliated researchers — now spread out in other buildings on campus — to operate under one roof.

“The way things work optimally is when faculty members from different disciplines drop the jargon and collaborate on research,” Olds says. “That’s one of many reasons why it is ideal to have everyone working in the same building.”

Using Computer Modeling to Predict the Economy

The institute is also undertaking new research, using computer models to understand some of the trickiest problems facing society. The onset of the current economic downturn caught many by surprise, but was there a better way to see the crisis coming?

Understanding and forecasting social phenomena, such as the inner workings of the economy, has been the elusive goal of social scientists for quite some time. Researchers in the institute’s Center for Social Complexity are developing computational and mathematical models of social phenomena using software “agents” — small chunks of computer code that behave purposively in their environment and competitively toward one another.

“From these micro-interactions, there emerges a larger structure and possibly novel behaviors,” says Robert Axtell, chair of the Department of Computational Social Science.

Axtell has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to build models that  engage in processes of innovation in order to create new products and services that are valuable to the agent population overall.

“Such models may shed light on actual innovation processes at work in real economies,” he says.

Adds Olds, “The Center for Social Complexity is taking complexity science and applying it in a variety of practical domains, such as understanding the economy and the actions of insurgents during war.”

Decade of the Mind

The institute is also continuing plans for the “Decade of the Mind.” The “decade” is a project that crosses the many disciplines of mind research over the decade from 2010 to 2020.

The project seeks to involve scientists around the world in an effort to improve public health, but also to create new jobs from the new technologies developed under the effort.

Since the official kick-off at Mason in 2007, Decade of the Mind has grown from a grassroots project to an international effort to secure $4 billion in funding across multiple agencies. Several scientific conferences have been held over the last three years to detail the type of research the project would cover and the benefits to society as a whole.

Olds co-founded this effort and has continued to meet with scientific leaders from a variety of educational institutes and research organizations around the world, such as the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, and the University of Ulm in Germany, to advance research to detail the inner workings of the mind.

“The Decade of the Mind project will be every bit as important as the Human Genome Project was in fulfilling our understanding of what it is to be a human being,” Olds says.

“The technology has matured, the science has reached critical mass and the time is now — both here in the United States and internationally with colleagues around the world.”

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