TRI moves forward: spires explained

Neuroscience, behavior and health: The neuroscience, behavior and health (NBH) spire ties research and education in neuroscience with psychology, Steering Committee Chair and professor of neuroscience Rae Nishi said. “We want to bring those two worlds together,” Nishi said. Collaborations are already happening within the NBH spire, and they are looking at developing new projects, she said. “There is a big strength here in addiction research,” Nishi said. “We have neuroscientists working with psychologists to see what nicotine does to an adolescent brain rather than adult brain. Maybe if you understand better how it happens, you can design better interventions.”    Nishi said she is enthusiastic about the increased opportunities that these collaborations will present.   “I have two undergrads in my lab right now,” Nishi said. “That wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have funding for research.  They learn more than they would sitting in a classroom.”     Nishi said she also sees the potential for spires to combine and create super spire-like structures. “There are interesting opportunities for collaboration across spires,” she said. “A part of food systems deals with health as well, take the problem of obesity for example. Any kind of dietary or metabolism problems stem from physiology.” In addition to boosting collaboration within and between spires, Nishi said that she believes that TRI will radiate spire energy into non-related disciplines, encouraging a universitywide pursuit of academic excellence. “There are avenues of interaction where even humanities, arts and foreign language can be enriched by a spire,” she said. Complex systems: Complex systems is like putting together the puzzle of the universe, Peter Dodds, professor of mathematics and statistics and chair of the complex systems steering committee said. Dodds said he sees TRI as an asset to the university community, a spark for better undergraduate education and research alike.   “I think it should make things better because we are attracting people who are doing great modern research,” Dodds said. “Complex systems deals with understanding how from microscopic mechanisms we get macroscopic things.” Complex systems is an emergent field that scientists finally have the tools to tackle, Dodds said.    “We had to take things to pieces but now the game is to go up through the levels to see how various pieces interact to see how you get macro behavior,” Dodds said, “A great example is the genome.  People were saying that once you sequence it, everything is solved.  It was insane.  Because there are gene to gene interactions, it is a network.  Then it spirals into more layers after that.” By combining disciplines, the complex systems spire hopes to answer some of life’s bigger questions.   “Explanation is the next big piece,” he said. “Specifically, thinking about why there is an increase in complexity.” Because its work is expansive by nature, complex systems is a fitting choice for a spire, Dodds said. “A systems way of thinking is a much more inclusive compass,” he said.    Even though the complicated details of complex systems research may be restricted to the laboratory, the energy will reach into the classroom, Dodds said.   “There is a version that you can present to people at all levels,” Dodds said. Furthermore, brilliant and ambitious undergraduates are encouraged to engage in research, he said.    “I have a couple of great undergrads who are working with me on research … I want more undergraduates,” Dodds said. “We want to create and develop something that will be a template for people around the world. We are building in that direction.”      Food systems: The food systems spire hopes to positively affect the future of food in Vermont and around the globe, Steering Committee Chair Jane Kolodinsky said.   “A concerted focus on food systems courses and research will enable deeper opportunities for learning at local, national and international levels,” community development and applied economics (CDAE) graduate student Jackie Leblanc said in a CDAE newsletter. Because it is such a broad topic, a collaborative approach is ideal, Leblanc said.   “Food intersects with so many other topics — such as transportation, food labeling and obesity issues, land use, and culture — it is truly a transdisciplinary topic,” she said. By combining disciplines, Kolodinsky said she hopes to push the boundaries of what the food systems field is capable of. “The key now is to get more coordination and synergy between the groups involved with food systems,” she said. “The idea is to really make an impact on the food community.” One of the goals of the spire is to solidify UVM’s position as an international leader of food systems. “The University of Vermont is a food systems leader right now, but the rest of the country is running fast to catch up,” Kolodinsky said. “We are going to show our increased productivity in food systems teaching, research and outreach in the next year so that we can maintain our relative advantage.”