A panel of professors and researchers discussed the future of the newly endowed Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute on Monday morning in Low Rotunda, just hours after Zuckerman pledged $200 million to the project.
The Institute, which will be led by professors Thomas M. Jessel, Richard Axel, and Eric Kandel, has a goal of integrating research across the Columbia community and creating a program that sustains interdisciplinary inquiry.
Zuckerman—a real estate mogul and the publisher of the New York Daily News—said that Kandel, the recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on memory and neurons, inspired him to donate to the project.
"Eric Kandel is the visionary who convinced me that we stand at the edge of discovering new things about the mind," he said, noting that Kandel told him that we now have the technological resources to help us better understand the brain and link research to other disciplines.
University President Lee Bollinger, who provided the introductions to the panel, called Zuckerman's contribution an "extraordinary gift."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg also spoke at the event, and said that Zuckerman is one of the few people who is “lucky enough to have the wherewithal to change the world,”
"The institute he is endowing will help keep New York at the forefront of brain research,” Bloomberg said.
The panel, which was moderated by Jessel and included Axel, Kandel, psychology professor Geraldine Downey, and professor of clinical surgery and University Trustee Kenneth Forde, discussed how the Institute would help researcher gain a better understand the intricate workings of the brain, human behavior, and mental disorders.
Axel said that the difficulties of studying the brain come from the complexities and our lack of understanding of how the brain processes information, comparing the brain to an abstract painting.
"It's like modern art, at some level," he said. "Our task is to truly understand the meaning of this abstraction."
Axel, who also won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2004 for his work on the olfactory system, added that we need a merger between disciplines, from sciences to humanities, to better understand this abstraction.
The collaboration will include working with engineers to develop more efficient technology and discussing theories of human behavior with psychologists and sociologists.
"But most importantly, it's going to require new and creative thinking," Axel said.
Other panelists also suggested that this research could change the way we think about the brain.
"Today, we're entering a new phase," Kandel said, adding that the institute would introduce a "paradigm shift in how neuroscience is practiced."
Jessel said that the establishment of the institute is a "pivotal moment in Columbia's aspirations to study neuroscience."
Psychology professor Nathaniel Sawtell said that he thought the vision for the institute was "fantastic," and said that the endowment from Zuckerman would help to make that vision a reality.
"I think the donation is going to be instrumental for making the vision happen,” he said.
Students who attended the panel were interested in the contributions the institute, which will be housed in the Jerome L. Greene Science Center on Manhattanville's campus upon completion in 2016, could provide across disciplines.
Abbee Cox, CC '14, is a psychology major and a teaching assistant in the department, who said that she was impressed with the connections between neuroscience and other disciplines.
"What really sets it apart is the interdisciplinary focus," she said.
Jessica Eaton, CC '14 and a human rights major, said that it was clear that all the researchers involved in the project clearly wanted to contribute to society and help people.
"All those scientists really have a social conscience," she said.
Though the project is still very much a work in progress, panelists said that they were excited about what the institute could discover about our brain and how it influences human behavior.
"The solution will be magical," Axel said.
Avantika Kumar contributed reporting.