Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 2
Spring 2008

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sarita soni
Sarita Soni, Vice Provost for Research
Photo © Ann Schertz Photography

Building a Brain Trust

by Sarita Soni

A familiar and ancient proverb says, "The eyes are windows to the soul." For nearly 30 years as a translational scientist at Indiana University's School of Optometry, I focused my attention on eyes and vision, studying the development and correction of vision disorders such as myopia (nearsightedness) and presbyopia (middle-age farsightedness) using contact lenses. I've learned much about the development and function of human eyes and the physical connections of our eyes to our brains. But I've often wondered about connections beyond the physical—between eyes, the mind, and interpretation.

Since 1888, when future IU president William Lowe Bryan established a psychology laboratory, the study of the human mind has been a vital research area at IU. Today, a surge of new research discoveries and technologies—especially neuroimaging—has made the boundaries between study of the "brain" and the "mind" mutable. As Linda Smith, the chair of IU Bloomington's recently renamed Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, puts it, her department's name now "represents the nature of advancing knowledge. We are committed to explaining behavior (and mind) from the molecular and cellular level though neural systems to cognition to the social behavior of individuals. It's a ‘molecules to bedside' approach. Integrative research like this is our future. It's not your father's, or even your, psychology any more."

As IU's Vice Provost for Research, I'm privileged to witness integrative, collaborative brain research going on across IU's schools and campuses. At the IU School of Medicine's Stark Neurosciences Research Institute, for example, faculty are pursuing investigations into neuroscience, neurophysiology, radiology, psychiatry, addiction, and Alzheimer's disease. The School of Medicine's Center for Neuroimaging is bringing together neuroscientists with specialists from physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, genetics, computer science, and informatics. Likewise, the Imaging Research Facility at IU Bloomington is providing the tools for rapidly expanding research into brain structure and function and the connections between brain and behavior. And the Linda and Jack Gill Center of Biomolecular Science, a focal point of neuroscience activity at IU Bloomington, is enabling dozens of researchers from biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, optometry, and medicine to advance their understanding of the brain function, neurodegenerative disease, learning and memory, and more.

As a researcher and a research administrator, I'm delighted that IU's Office of the Vice Provost for Research is able to help develop this exciting research by working with faculty, schools, and departments to acquire equipment and instruments, enable collaborative projects, and support the realization of new research facilities and buildings. But most important of all, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research invests in the researchers themselves, by providing internal funds to help faculty compete successfully for external research funds necessary to sustain their work.

Early this year, Indiana University lost one of its leading neuroscientists, J. Michael Walker, who was Linda and Jack Gill Chair of Neuroscience and director of the Gill Center. At the time of his death, Walker's laboratory was exploring molecules in our bodies that produce or dampen pain, with the hope that deeper understanding of these molecules will lead to better lives for patients suffering from chronic pain.

Walker's death was a staggering loss, but the research done in his laboratory will go on as his students and colleagues carry forward his work. Since William Lowe Bryan launched his psychology lab at IU some 120 years ago, investigations of how mind and brain work together have continued unabated. At IU, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and researchers in many other areas, from informatics and education to philosophy and religion, are raising new and crucial questions about human consciousness and existence, about what it means to be human in this 21st century.

And nothing could be more farsighted than that.

Sarita Soni is Indiana University's Vice Provost for Research.