USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Thanks Howard Hughes for helping us get the word out about the USA Science and Engineering Festival. Main Article here

Two scientists from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, Roian Egnor and Lou Scheffer, will speak at the USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo, which will take place on and around the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on October 23-24, 2010. Egnor and Scheffer, both fellows at Janelia Farm, will discuss the latest research on how the brain works, considering the question from two very different perspectives: one as a neuroscientist who studies animal behavior, and the other from the point of view of an electrical engineer.

The USA Science and Engineering Festival is a collaboration of more than 500 of the nation’s leading science organizations, designed to re-invigorate the interest of the nation’s youth in science, technology, engineering and math. The Expo is the culmination of two weeks of nationwide festival events, and will feature over 1,500 hands-on science activities and more than 75 stage shows and performances.

Egnor and Scheffer are appearing as part of the “Because Dreams Need Doing” program organized by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. Speakers from a variety of scientific fields will present in the “Because Dreams Need Doing” stage on the east end of the National Mall, in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, on both days of the Expo.

Egnor, a fellow at Janelia Farm, will speak about the neural basis of animal behavior in a talk titled “The Mouse that Roared.” Scheffer, also a Janelia Farm fellow, will discuss how computers can help figure out how the brain’s complicated network of neurons is wired in a talk titled “Reverse Engineer Your Brain.” Egnor and Scheffer will speak on Saturday, October 23, at 10 am and 10:30 am, respectively.

Roian Egnor, Ph.D.

“The Mouse that Roared”

10:00 a.m., Saturday, October 23, 2010

Science has long been a part of Roian Egnor’s life. She spent her early childhood in Tunisia, where her father taught science at a middle school for the children of American families living abroad. “We would go camping in the Sahara, and I can remember crawling out of my tent in the early morning and seeing desert foxes,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in watching animals. If you stop and watch for a while, you realize there is a lot going on there.”

That early interest has translated into the study of the neural basis of natural animal behaviors, a field called neuroethology. Now a fellow at the Janelia Farm Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Va., Egnor received a degree in biology with a focus on integrative neuroscience at Bryn Mawr College and a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology in the laboratory Masakazu “Mark” Konishi, a pioneering neuroethologist. While in Konishi’s lab, she contributed to ongoing research into barn owl hearing.

Few animals can track sounds better than barn owls. Through evolution they have become so adept at it that they can catch a mouse in complete darkness just by tracking the rustling of leaves the rodent makes as it scurries about. This acuity stems from the parabolic sound collectors built into the owls’ heart-shaped faces and the “massively” developed auditory pathways that analyze those sounds in their brains.

But Egnor wants to understand how animals use sound in natural, uncontrolled environments. At Janelia Farm, her experiments record and characterize the vocalizations of 40 or more mice in the same enclosure going about their daily, uncontrolled lives.

“Problem number one is just keeping track of all the mice,” she says. “Then, you have to keep track of what they’re paying attention to as they vocalize: Are they thinking about what they smell or are they thinking about what they see or are they thinking about both? They are right next to this female, but are they thinking about the female across the cage?”

Lou Scheffer, Ph.D.

“Reverse Engineer Your Brain”

10:30 a.m. Saturday, October 23, 2010

For more than two decades Louis Scheffer has been working to improve the design of microchips, figuring out how to connect hundreds of thousands of electronic transistors in a single device. Now a scientist at the Janelia Farm Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Va., he is applying similar design principles to understand another type of “wiring”–the intricate interconnections that neurons make in the brain.

Neuroscientists want to map the flow of electrical signals in the brain to understand how it turns signals from the eyes into images, for example, or instructs arms and legs to move. But these neuronal circuits are difficult to map, especially when dealing with billions of neurons as in the human brain. For each neuron, researchers have to follow its long projections–the axons and dendrites–and determine which other neurons they connect with.

To analyze each image from scratch would take researchers at least 10 hours. So they rely on computers to do a “first pass” analysis of the images and then “proofread” the computer’s interpretation, spending about one hour on each image. To cut down on proofreading time, Scheffer and others are trying to develop software to help computers perform the reconstruction step more accurately and efficiently. In particular, he wants to teach computers to recognize different types of neurons and the axons and dendrites shooting out of them.

An electrical engineer who earned degrees from the California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, Scheffer’s journey into the world of neuroscience and the brain began six years ago while he was planning a conference in Paris on interconnections in computers. He made some new connections himself.

Scheffer aims to map all the neurons in the fly brain in the next five years. That may seem like an ambitious goal, but Scheffer is optimistic that it will get done. “When I started in the transistor field in 1981, it took me two years to build a chip with 15,000 transistors in it,” he explains. “By 2009, we had developed software that could help build a chip with 1 billion transistors in the same amount of time.” He is confident of seeing similar advances in researchers’ ability to map the brain’s functions.

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