By Lisa Trei and Nathan Collins
Stanford will accelerate the pace of discovery about the human brain and advance innovative, interdisciplinary brain science thanks to nearly $250 million in recent gifts from philanthropists from the United States, Asia and Europe. In recognition of the lead gift from alumna Clara Wu Tsai and her husband, Joe Tsai, the Stanford Neurosciences Institute is changing its name to the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.
The institute’s goal is to better understand how the brain functions, both in health and disease, and to pave the way for new treatments for neurological and psychiatric diseases such as depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s. The funds, raised since the institute was established in 2013, provide support to scale up research initiatives; expand resources for faculty, students, postdocs and new technologies; and complete an interdisciplinary research complex where scientists from across campus can meet and collaborate.
Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist himself, said the gifts come at a pivotal time.
“We are on the threshold of a very promising era, as we make discoveries about the living brain that were previously unimaginable,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “Nearly 450 faculty members from a range of fields are already engaged in the neurosciences and brain-related research at Stanford, making it one of our most vibrant areas of inquiry on campus. These foundational investments uniquely position our scientific community and university-wide institute to advance new breakthroughs. I am deeply thankful for the vision and generosity of our donors, including Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai, who understand the potential of this research to improve brain health and human well-being.”
Clara Wu Tsai, ’88, MA ’88, served on a presidential task force that helped shape the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and Stanford ChEM-H (Chemistry, Engineering & Medicine for Human Health). She said the concentration of experts from many fields within walking distance of one another on one campus and the university’s ability to harness this collective knowledge were key factors that she and her husband took into account when deciding to invest in the neurosciences at Stanford.
“Joe and I believe Stanford is uniquely positioned to drive breakthrough discoveries about the brain, translate them into effective therapies, and train future scientists of the world,” Wu Tsai said. “Ultimately, we hope the research undertaken at the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute will lead to cures and treatments that impact millions of people by prolonging their lives and making them more fulfilling and productive.”
Wu Tsai earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in international policy studies at Stanford, as well as an MBA at Harvard. She then pursued a career in business and finance as an executive at American Express and at Taobao, China’s largest online shopping site.
At Stanford, Wu Tsai is an active member of the advisory council that helps guide university institutes focused on the interdisciplinary life sciences. She also co-chairs the advisory cabinet for the neurosciences institute and serves on the university’s Global Advisory Council. Previously, she served on the advisory council for Stanford Bio-X.
Joe Tsai is executive vice chairman and one of the founders of Alibaba Group, a global Internet technology company based in China. Alibaba has businesses in digital commerce, entertainment, cloud computing, logistics and financial technology.
Together, Joe and Clara pursue philanthropic investments that advance knowledge, innovation, equality of opportunity and creative arts. Their work with global partners focuses on the translation of new knowledge into practical applications with human and social impact.
In its role of fostering university-wide initiatives related to brain science, the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute will leverage ongoing contributions from the schools of medicine, engineering, and humanities and sciences. These partnerships will be further enhanced when a new interdisciplinary research complex opens next year. The complex comprises two intersecting buildings, one that will serve as the hub for the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute and the other for Stanford ChEM-H.
The 235,000-square-foot research complex is located a short walk from Stanford’s basic sciences departments, engineering and medical schools, and the children’s and adult hospitals. Also nearby is the James H. Clark Center, home base for Stanford Bio-X, a cross-disciplinary venture launched in 1998 that has become a model for biosciences programs worldwide.
The Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute is led by William Newsome, the Vincent V. C. Woo Director and Harman Family Provostial Professor, who jointly led the working group for President Barack Obama’s BRAIN research initiative. Newsome said that advances in the neurosciences have the potential to transform the 21st century in the way that quantum physics and breaking the genetic code transformed the 20th century.
“Technologies invented in the last decade are making it possible for neuroscientists to acquire new kinds of information about the brain that, until recently, was the stuff of scientists’ dreams,” Newsome said. “The sequencing of the human genome, new imaging techniques, optogenetics, discoveries in nanoscience and physics – all of these advances are providing critical insights into our minds and ourselves. Clara and Joe’s generous gift will help us get closer to a world where we can effectively diagnose and treat brain injury, diseases and disorders, as well as enhance brain functions to improve lives.”
When the neurosciences institute was launched five years ago, Newsome asked faculty to form cross-disciplinary teams around what they considered the boldest, most visionary research projects tackling challenges in brain science. More than 230 Stanford scientists and scholars presented dozens of “Big Ideas in Neuroscience” that focused on three research directions: NeuroDiscovery, NeuroEngineering and NeuroHealth. The institute selected projects with tremendous potential that were less likely to secure federal funding at this early stage of research, especially since the projects require substantive teamwork among diverse faculty experts. A second round of Big Ideas was announced last month.
Ongoing projects are looking into brain rejuvenation, addiction, neuro-technologies, brain-machine interfaces, nervous system disorders and psychiatric illness.
In addition, the institute funds modest grants and awards that support high-risk, high-reward collaborations. This includes research into cognitive aging, stroke recovery, treatments for obsessive compulsive disorder and chronic pain. The institute also fosters teamwork through shared laboratories and collaboration spaces as well as workshops, seminars and symposia.
Vice Provost and Dean of Research Kathryn Moler said that the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute will accelerate these types of innovative and interdisciplinary campus endeavors and support collaborations with SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the VA Palo Alto Health Care System and biotech firms in Silicon Valley.
“One of the challenges of interdisciplinary research is finding effective ways for experts from different fields to work together,” Moler said. “What we are learning from Big Ideas and other cross-campus collaborations is helping to set a new standard for how to do science in the 21st century.”
The Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute is marking its fifth anniversary Oct. 11 with a symposium titled “Natural/Artificial Intelligence.” Future plans include launching an initiative in neuro-translation to help teams of scientists move discoveries from the lab into practical application. It will also support neuro-theory collaborations involving computer scientists, statisticians, applied physicists and engineers who want to identify fundamental principles of nervous system computation, understand how the brain’s neural network of interconnecting neurons operates and also make sense of the vast quantities of new brain data.
Newsome said that there has been an explosion of interest from young scientists in collaborative brain research and the institute will need to raise fellowships to ramp up cross-disciplinary graduate and postdoctoral training programs. The institute also aims to launch research centers that specialize in highly promising areas such as sensory neuroscience, computational neuroscience, and molecular and cellular approaches to brain disease.
“Breakthroughs in the neurosciences have the potential to not only improve human well-being but to guide future policies and practices that affect the criminal justice system, drug control, national defense, social welfare and education,” Newsome said. “I believe that the work of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute will be truly transformative.”