Institute Created to Advance Neuroscience Research
Building on years of momentum in advancing brain science research, Carnegie Mellon University has appointed renowned auditory neuroscientist Barbara Shinn-Cunningham to help establish a new, cross-disciplinary neuroscience institute that will create innovative tools and technologies critical to advancing brain science.
Shinn-Cunningham is currently the director of Boston University’s Center for Research in Sensory Communication and Emerging Neural Technology (CRESCENT) and has been on BU’s faculty since 1997. Trained as an electrical engineer, Shinn-Cunningham is interested in how information is processed in the brain.
“With the creation of this institute and the appointment of Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, Carnegie Mellon is renewing its commitment to neuroscience research and education,” said Laurie Weingart, interim provost. “Together they will position the university to accelerate our strengths, bridge new connections across campus and bring in new talent, ideas and resources — all to work to understand some of the brain’s biggest mysteries.”
Shinn-Cunningham’s leadership of the new institute will coalesce Carnegie Mellon’s existing resources in neuroscience in order to expand collaborative research across the biological sciences, cognitive neuroscience and psychology, as well as deepen connections to Carnegie Mellon’s core strengths in other disciplines.
“Understanding the human brain and its relation to behavior is one of the most important and complicated problems of our time,” said Richard Scheines, dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “Barbara’s expertise and leadership perfectly fits with our approach to attacking complicated, real-world problems by crossing disciplines and working together to solve them. It has been a great pleasure getting to know her over the last several months. I am excited to see where the science will go but also excited to work with Barbara on taking neuroscience to a new level at Carnegie Mellon. She is the perfect person to lead interdisciplinary brain science at Carnegie Mellon.”
Current neuroscience initiatives and programs at Carnegie Mellon, including BrainHub and the joint Carnegie Mellon/University of Pittsburgh Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), will form the foundation for the new institute that will be jointly run by the Dietrich College and Mellon College of Science.
“The future of science at Carnegie Mellon is exciting. In neuroscience, we’re doing work that elevates foundational science by leveraging advances in both computation and engineering,” said Rebecca W. Doerge, dean of the Mellon College of Science. “Barbara’s leadership and experience with interdisciplinary work will help us take our already elite neuroscience programs to the next level.”
Launched in 2014, BrainHub has advanced the university’s position in the field, with support from a number of sources, including the federal BRAIN Initiative, foundations that include the Hillman Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Fine Foundation, and individuals, such as Kris Gopalakrishnan.
BrainHub supports Ph.D. students studying the brain and behavior across the university, has created new research collaborations using funding from the ProSEED program, instituted a fellowship program with the Indian Institute of Science and developed community outreach programs to engage the public and policymakers in the importance of basic science research.
It also brought together close to 50 faculty members from across campus who are studying the brain. Work done by these scientists have led to a greater understanding of human cognition, action, memory, autism and Parkinson’s disease, and helped further technologies, such as neural prosthetics, brain-computer interfaces and innovative tools for imaging the brain in action.
These efforts will build on the pioneering training and research fostered by the CNBC. Founded 24 years ago, the CNBC is an interdisciplinary research and educational program that brings together Carnegie Mellon’s expertise in cognitive and computational neuroscience with the University of Pittsburgh’s strengths in basic and clinical neuroscience. It is home to the top-ranked neural computation doctoral program in the country.
As director of the new neuroscience institute, Shinn-Cunningham will continue this agenda and set a strategic direction for brain science at Carnegie Mellon, assessing the current strengths and identifying needs. She'll take over leadership of BrainHub from Alison Barth, professor of biological sciences, who has been interim faculty director of BrainHub since 2015, and Carnegie Mellon leadership of the CNBC from Rob Kass, the Maurice Falk Professor of Statistics and Computational Neuroscience, who has held the position since 2015. Gerry Balbier will continue as the executive director of BrainHub, working with Shinn-Cunningham to build a world-class environment for research, training and programming.
About Barbara Shinn-Cunningham
Shinn-Cunningham, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, graduated from Brown University and earned both her master's degree and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in electrical and computer engineering. Before her time at Boston University, she worked at Bell Communications Research, MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Sensimetrics.
Shinn-Cunningham has built her research career around applying math and engineering approaches to perception, specifically hearing and speech. She is best known for her spatial hearing work on the “cocktail party problem,” which looks at how the brain uses attention to block out certain sounds and pay attention to others.
In addition to directing CRESCENT, which supports 40 faculty members across three of BU’s academic units, Shinn-Cunningham has led several multidisciplinary research centers. In 2012, she took over leading the National Science Foundation-funded Science of Learning Center CELEST, and for four years brought researchers from five institutions together and generated additional funding from the NSF, National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense.
Shinn-Cunningham will officially join Carnegie Mellon during the 2018-2019 academic year and believes that Carnegie Mellon’s collaborative culture combined with its growing excellence in cognitive and biological neuroscience will form the perfect foundation for the next generation of brain science.
“Science is becoming very interdisciplinary and boundaries are now artificial,” Shinn-Cunningham said. “Neuroscience is coming up with ways to measure volumes of data across different neural levels and during different points of interaction. The next challenge is to make sense of the resulting deluge of data and connect it to behavior. Carnegie Mellon has the kind of people who can find structure amidst this complexity.”