A Unique Interdisciplinary Opportunity in Neuroscience

On the first day of class, after introductions but before much else, Martha Farah gives students in her graduate-level “Foundations of Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience” an exam.

The expected murmurs and protestations ripple through the room, until Farah, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences and director of Penn’s Center for Neuroscience & Society (CNS), explains it has nothing to do with their grades and everything to do with getting a sense of who they are and what they know.

Typically, such a deep dive into the background knowledge of a course’s participants evolves slowly or comes later, but Psych 547 is the entre into a unique interdisciplinary program, the graduate certificate in Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience or SCAN, run by the School of Arts & Sciences.

Neuroscience has recently become a field that scholars with diverse research interests, from anthropology to law, turn to for insight into human behavior.

“This is an exciting moment for neuroscience and society, with a mix of important advances and silly, confused claims,” Farah says. “We want to equip Penn students to lead in these interdisciplinary endeavors, raising the standards in these fields and becoming leaders.” SCAN evolved to fill that niche.

I’ve always been fascinated by how the mind emerges from the brain, how our mental life is shaped by the physiology of the brain.

Martha Farah, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences and director of Penn’s Center for Neuroscience & Society

The goal isn’t to turn everyone into neuroscientists. Rather, she says, it’s “to give them enough understanding of the field that they can be realistic, critical consumers of the science and recognize good opportunities for incorporating it into their work.” Fall 2016 marks the start of SCAN’s fourth year, and the program is gaining momentum, having now enrolled students from seven of the university’s 12 schools.

SCAN was a logical outgrowth of both Farah’s work and the mission of CNS.

“I’ve always been fascinated by how the mind emerges from the brain, how our mental life is shaped by the physiology of the brain,” Farah says. That curiosity spurred a research career that has now spanned more than three decades.

When Farah started in the early 1980s, cognitive neuroscience was new, focused on explaining simple abilities humans share with most animals, such as vision and motor control. As it progressed, the tide shifted.

“Right around the turn of the century, cognitive neuroscience developed enough of a knowledge base, enough of a toolbox, that we could begin to understand aspects of the human mind relevant to real people’s lives,” she says. “The field began to extend into emotion and social processes. So it wasn’t just about how we see and hear, how we memorize lists of words or do mental arithmetic, but also about human feeling and relationships.”

  Researchers demonstrate transcranial magnetic stimulation guided by an MRI, work done by scientists at Penn's Center for Neuroscience & Society.

Researchers demonstrate transcranial magnetic stimulation guided by an MRI, work done by scientists at Penn's Center for Neuroscience & Society.

Farah began to realize that as a cognitive neuroscientist, she had an opportunity—and an obligation—to understand how her science fit into society. She started down the research path of neuropsychiatric drugs like Adderall, asking what happens when healthy people take them simply to focus attention longer. What edge does this give them? Do the drugs even work? What about brain stimulation as a means to enhance cognition?

“These [enhancers] probably don’t do much in terms of cognitive abilities for people without a diagnosable impairment,” she says. “However, with the stimulant medications, it seems they give a pretty noticeable boost to motivation and subjective energy level.”

A Unique Interdisciplinary Opportunity in Neuroscience

This picture depicts the result of a computer segmentation of a 1-month-old’s brain into grey matter (green and yellow), white matter (blue), and cerebrospinal fluid (red). This method is used to measure differences in brain structure between infants from poor and non-poor households. Research is being done with colleagues from CHOP and the Department of Radiology at Penn Medicine: Laura Betancourt, Hallam Hurt, and Brian Avants.

Her latest research looks at how poverty in childhood affects brain development. Scientists know growing up impoverished results in certain deficiencies, but they don’t yet understand why it happens or what could practically be done to change this. Soon, the work will likely move under the umbrella of the Center for Neuroscience & Society, joining that of researchers like Emily Falk from Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, who looks at brain scans to design more effective health communications, and Diana Robertson, the James T. Riady Professor at the Wharton School, who focuses on legal studies and the neural bases of business ethics.

It’s this sort of multidisciplinary approach that moves the field of neuroscience forward. Similarly, it’s what brings graduate students new insights about their own work—and what nearly everyone says when asked about the best part of SCAN.

Fiona Moreno is one of those students, about to begin her fourth year in a Ph.D. program in French and Francophone literature. She credits SCAN for permanently altering the course of her research for the better. Moreno specializes in reader reception, and more specifically, how people engage with literary narratives in various real and fictional settings. Moreno had long been interested in neuroscience approaches to reading processes—the field has insight into language understanding, cognitive development, and mental imagery—so when her advisor heard about SCAN, he encouraged Moreno to investigate.

SCAN provides you with connections, wonderful connections you would have never developed. ... There were people from business, law, education, anthropology, philosophy, all of these people you would never have met without this program. This was highly precious.

Fiona Moreno, Ph.D. student in French and Francophone literature

Each program participant takes two mandatory core courses and two neuroscience-heavy electives of their choice. Moreno selected a class about cognitive development taught by Penn Psychology Senior Fellow Deena Weisberg; Weisberg is now part of Moreno’s dissertation committee.

“SCAN provides you with connections, wonderful connections you would have never developed. In my case it’s Deena, but also my fellow classmates,” Moreno says. “There were people from business, law, education, anthropology, philosophy, all of these people you would never have met without this program. This was highly precious.”

Despite the disparate fields of study for Josh Franklin and Devin Curry (the former will earn an MD, plus a Ph.D. in Anthropology; the latter’s working toward a Philosophy Ph.D.), ask the grad students for their thoughts and each will rattle off a list nearly identical to Moreno’s about the breadth of the community and the value of its tools.

“The group is just so diverse,” Curry says. “It was really cool interacting with all of those people given that 95 percent of my life is interacting with philosophers—who are very a particular type of academic.”

Farah loves this aspect of SCAN, too, but it doesn’t seem to be her end goal. Rather, she wants to improve the quality of work happening in what she calls the “neurofields”—neurolaw and neuroeducation—by equipping advanced students with a true understanding of neuroscience.

“Once you’ve committed to graduate study in one field, it’s hard to get a grounding in another,” she says. “But that’s what you need to do good interdisciplinary work, to sort the promising ideas from the fluff.”

In her classroom on the final day of “Foundations of Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience,” she hands back the exams from that first class. The point is to remind the students how much they’ve grown. And almost without fail, they have. Individuals with unrelated backgrounds in very different fields now have a collective and broader understanding of neuroscience and its ever-expanding place in society.

  • Text by Michele Berger
  • Photos by Scott Spitzer & Tommy Leonardi