This past month, Associate Professor of Neuroscience James DiCarlo was announced as the new head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS). The BCS department is the home of the Course 9 major, and it is the academic home of most of the faculty members in the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the new Simons Center for the Social Brain, headed by outgoing BCS head Mriganka Sur.
The Tech caught up with DiCarlo at his office to talk about his goals for the future of BCS.
TT: So this is mostly to learn about the new BCS head, a little bit about Jim. Oh, sorry, Professor DiCarlo.
JD: My undergraduate students call me Professor DiCarlo and that still sounds a little weird to me. So it’s totally OK to call me Jim.
TT: How do you feel about being the new department head?
JD: First, it’s a real honor. The confidence and support that so many people have given me are overwhelming and humbling. We are the world’s leading neuroscience and cognitive science department, and handing me the reins to that is really an honor and a challenge. … It’s a lot to do. Over the last 10 years we’ve increased our faculty size almost 50 percent to nearly 40 primary faculty. We have tremendous faculty, and together, we bring tremendous diversity in techniques and research questions. Indeed, our strength is our diversity, from molecular neuroscience, to systems neuroscience, to computational neuroscience, all the way up to cognitive neuroscience. But that diversity is also something that we have to work hard to integrate, to make sure that we have research that cuts across those lines, to make sure we maintain and grow a sense of community in the entire department, and to leverage that diversity to educate our undergraduate and graduate students. Now that we have gone through this great period of growth under Mriganka Sur’s leadership, we now need to consolidate our educational mission. Indeed, my main missions as department head are to strengthen our education programs and to really foster a spirit of community across the department.
TT: Why are you so enthusiastic about BCS?
JD: To think about understanding the brain — it helps to take an analogy that’s a little tired, but still helpful — a computer. If you think about how we would try to understand how a computer works, you realize that there is no one person on the planet that can tell you how a computer works — even though humans built it! Instead, there are people that know about software, algorithms, application design and user interface — what can be called high level, or analogous to the cognitive science end of our department. There are people that know about how circuit boards work, how they can represent data, and how they are connected to each other to execute algorithms — analogous to systems neuroscience. There are people that know an awful lot about transistors, what makes them work well, and their minute connections — the elements that make the entire computer work, analogous to single neurons in the brain. Like the computer, the brain is far more complicated than just these three simple levels, but the point of my analogy is that understanding complex systems like computers requires teams of people than can study and bridge different levels of analysis, and computational neuroscientists to glue those levels together. BCS has people that study all those different levels, and I want to foster those potential synergies. I aim to bring faculty together. When you get people together, they may not at first think they have much to talk about, but soon new synergies can emerge. Those multiple levels of potential integration are what makes this department so very unique. For example, if you go to another neuroscience department you might find somebody like me who know monkey physiology, and you might find people who know cognitive science, or cell and molecular neuroscience, but they are typically over in some other building or thinking about totally different questions, so it’s almost a physical brick wall there. But in our department and our fabulous new building, those walls do not exist. And that can be used to foster something that is in the DNA of MIT — exciting things happen from the integration of traditionally different disciplines, traditionally different ideas, and we aim to do that very well both within the BCS department and to other departments at MIT.
TT: Why did Course 9 decide to reorganize its undergraduate curriculum and what steps is it going to take in the reorganization?
JD: The changes in our undergraduate curriculum were prompted by a number of things. One of them is that we’re responding to developments in the field and we want to convey things that are new. Indeed, we’re seeing more and more students interested in Course 9, and we want to deliver to those students the best education that we can. A primary driving factor in our curriculum changes is that our courses haven’t traditionally had a progressive build, where “first you take these as foundation classes and then you build on top of that and you build on top of that.” That’s an area we can do better: give students a path by which fundamental courses — especially MIT-style, quantitative fundamental courses — are going to help them succeed in the higher-level graduate courses and beyond their time at BCS and MIT. Course 9 undergraduates generally go in three directions: medical school, graduate school, and industry — roughly split in thirds. And this diversity leads to different desires for what each student wants to get out of a Course 9 major. Whatever they choose, we want to make sure that they get a great education — an MIT quality education. I want our curriculum to convey to students what excites us about the links between the brain and the mind, convey the fundamentals that we already know, and teach them the principles and methods by which we gained that knowledge and by which continually work to gain more knowledge. At heart, my goals with education are really about always trying to be the best. I think we are the best in research and we should also be the best in education.
TT: Does that encompass any organization of the graduate curriculum?
JD: We’ve recently made the oral and written qualification system for our graduate students much more rigorous. While progress has been made, there is still room to improve teaching at the graduate curriculum level. We have faculty that each teach things well, but we can give that to students in a much more coherent package, which requires a little more organization and faculty effort toward teaching. I believe that our faculty want to be a part of that, and it’s now my job to help organize that. We know that we can always be better educators and mentors. I think that’s the spirit of MIT — let’s figure out where we can do better, and then do it!
TT: What does Course 9 and BCS need to do to stay at the forefront of research and innovation? Do you have any initiatives and collaborations you’re looking forward to?
JD: To me, the MIT brand and the BCS brand are really about something deeply important — a true basic science mission. Most of our faculty are not thinking directly “I’m going to fix a disease,” but they’re thinking about brain mechanisms that fascinate them. They’re thinking about something that you would call basic science or textbook knowledge — discovering principles and mechanisms underlying how the brain works — deep insights we don’t yet know and we can’t even yet predict. As we gain those insights, we might be able to help alleviate this disease or that condition, we might be able to build new machines that work as well as our own brain, we might be able to build new prosthetic devices that replace lost brain function or augment new brain function. But we just don’t know — the applications of our research will almost surely emerge in unpredictable ways from understanding the way the brain normally works. I’ll be the first to tell you, I love to think about applications of my research on visual object recognition, but in the end those are more dreams and hopes than a guide for what experiment to do next. BCS and MIT must lead the world in the basic science mission. It is from that basic science understanding that applications will emerge, often in completely unpredictable ways that are more astounding than we can even imagine — that’s been the history of science for decades.
TT: So, on a more personal note, what does Professor DiCarlo do in his free time?
JD: I have a wonderful family — so I spend as much time as I can with them. I also train for marathons; I am running the Boston Marathon in April and hope for a PR. So you might see me at the Z-Center or running around the river, or swimming at the Alumni pool. I need to exercise to keep me sane, and goals to keep it fun.
TT: Do you have any last piece of advice for students?
JD: My one big piece of advice is to avail yourself of this time at MIT. Don’t be afraid to go after that UROP, go into that professor’s office, ask questions and say, “Hey, how can I learn more about this?,” or “what do you know about this?” Most MIT faculty have warm hearts and genuinely like being around curious students. They’re just really busy, so it’s just a matter of cornering them and asking a few questions. You’re in a very unique place and mix of people right now, so you have opportunities that you will not have later when you’re off working for company x, y or z. So it’s really a time for you to not only learn facts, but to learn what you like, what’s in your heart. For example, when I was an undergraduate I thought I was going to be a doctor, but I found a great research advisor and got immersed in research. One thing led to another, and now I get to lead a great department that has the world’s best chance of explaining how brain networks give rise to the mind. In that sense, the MIT UROP program is a truly great thing; it’s not just something to check off a list, it’s a time to find things that can excite you more than you can imagine.