By Nicholas Weiler
(Image credit: Steve Fisch)
Stanford neuroscientist Kang Shen has been named the Vincent V.C. Woo Director of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, an interdisciplinary research institute under Stanford’s Vice Provost and Dean of Research that unites scientists and scholars across campus in the study of the mind, brain, and behavior in health and disease.
“Kang is a gifted scientist, educator, and respected leader,” said Kathryn “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research at Stanford University. “We are fortunate that he is committed to shepherding the next stage of the institute’s impact to improve our knowledge of the brain and advance transformative research that could dramatically benefit human health and well-being.”
Shen, a professor of biology and of pathology at Stanford and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, will take on leadership of the institute from founding director William Newsome beginning Sept. 1.
“Kang is a highly respected neuroscientist and a valued collaborator within our community,” said Newsome, the Harman Family Provostial Professor and professor in the Department of Neurobiology. “He has a deep appreciation for the power of collaborative science and will be an energetic advocate for the next phase of the institute’s mission. I’m proud to pass the reins to his capable hands and eager to see the institute continue to grow and evolve under his leadership.”
Launched in 2013 and renamed in 2018 to honor a foundational gift from Clara Wu Tsai, ’88, MA ’88, and Joe Tsai, the institute’s core mission has always been to advance the impact of neuroscience research by cultivating an open and collaborative neuroscience community that cuts across traditional disciplinary boundaries.
By convening ideas and partnerships from more than 500 faculty affiliates drawn from all seven of Stanford’s schools and more than 50 departments; investing in shared infrastructure and transformative technology; and cultivating the next generation of diverse and innovative neuroscience trainees, the institute aims to advance knowledge of how the brain gives rise to mental life and behavior and to identify new therapies for neurological and psychiatric disease.
“The discoveries, insights, and techniques developed by Stanford’s prestigious faculty have fundamentally changed the way neuroscience is done around the world,” said Shen. “It’s an incredible honor for me to serve the vibrant and collaborative community that Wu Tsai Neuro has cultivated. Together I look forward to advancing our shared mission: to better understand the workings of the brain and use this knowledge to cultivate, protect and restore brain health.”
Advancing neuroscience collaboration
Wu Tsai Neuro has dedicated nearly $30 million to stimulating impactful, interdisciplinary neuroscience at Stanford through grant programs large and small. Its flagship “Big Ideas in Neuroscience” grant program – which grew out of a famous series of cross-disciplinary dinners Newsome hosted during the founding of the institute – provides significant funding to convene diverse teams of experts from across campus to solve fundamental challenges in the field.
Shen witnessed the impact of the institute’s collaborative philosophy firsthand as a member of the Brain Rejuvenation Initiative, a Big Ideas program focused on developing new insights into how to slow or reverse brain aging.
Since joining the Stanford faculty in 2003, Shen’s lab has studied how brain circuitry forms during development and how it is maintained over an organism’s lifetime. Using the humble nematode worm C. elegans, his team has unraveled molecular and genetic programs that guide the formation of neurons’ intricate tree-shaped dendrites and orchestrate the formation of their extensive synaptic networks.
On joining the Brain Rejuvenation Initiative, the collaborations Shen experienced inspired his group to establish a new scientific direction: exploring how fundamental mechanisms of cellular stress and resilience they had discovered might be used to enhance brain cells’ resistance to the stresses of aging and neurodegenerative disease.
“The institute’s support brought together experts in fundamental neurobiology, human genetics, neurology, neurodegenerative disease pathology, and beyond to generate bold ideas for tackling the ambitious challenge of brain resilience that none of us could have contemplated approaching on our own,” Shen said.
The Brain Rejuvenation Initiative was a forebear of the new Phil and Penny Knight Initiative for Brain Resilience, led by Shen’s colleague Tony Wyss-Coray, and on whose steering committee Shen sits.
“As director, I look forward to continuing the philosophy of the institute that Bill Newsome established from the start: to stimulate collaborative research that breaks us out of our old-fashioned silos and to advance the innovative, risky projects that ultimately are what make possible quantum leaps in understanding.”
The institute’s commitment to unifying the Stanford research community across traditional disciplinary boundaries is physically exemplified by the Stanford Neurosciences Building, designed as a campus hub for interdisciplinary discovery, innovative engineering, and clinical translation in the neurosciences.
In addition to housing experimental and theoretical neuroscience research groups led by collaborative faculty hailing from 12 Stanford departments, the building is also home to five of the institute’s six Neurosciences Community Laboratories. These shared labs play a key role in welcoming researchers from different disciplines into the neurosciences by providing shared access to high-end research technology and expertise in brain imaging, genetic engineering, animal behavior, human brain research, virtual reality, and more.
“Stanford is a wellspring of transformative technologies that are quickly becoming central to what we do in neuroscience,” Shen said. “The Neurosciences Community Laboratories and their expert directors allow us to make the most up-to-date tools and technologies available to our diverse research community and serve as a hub for our collaborative mission.”
Bringing together labs from multiple disciplines to solve complex research questions depends on cultivating innovative and collaborative scientific thinking in students and postdoctoral researchers who make the research possible.
To this end, Wu Tsai Neuro’s training programs for postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates emphasize building tight-knit communities of scholars who can learn from one another and stimulate collaborative science. This approach is epitomized by the institute’s influential Interdisciplinary Scholars program, which has trained dozens of postdoctoral researchers as the vanguard of cross-disciplinary innovation in neuroscience.
Spearheaded by its active Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging, Equity and Justice committee, the institute also sponsors programs to cultivate welcoming spaces for researchers at all levels from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the world of science.
“The Institute has had a tremendous track record in fostering the next cohort of brilliant leaders in the field and is also engaged in stellar work to make sure this next generation reflects the diversity of our society,” Shen said. “Talent and genius come from every social group, and we must continue to make every effort to build a diverse and inclusive community that welcomes everyone to join us in this scientific adventure.”