BRAIN Initiative neuroscientists, Vanessa Ruta (left) and Joshua Tenenbaum (right), receive 2019 MacArthur fellowships. Photo credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


BRAIN Initiative Scientists Receive Prestigious MacArthur Fellowships

BY:BRAIN Initiative Alliance

The MacArthur Foundation has announced this year’s roster for their annual “genius” grant, including two researchers whose diligent and innovative work is part of the BRAIN Initiative. Drs. Vanessa Ruta and Joshua Tenenbaum are two neuroscientists among the esteemed 26 fellows for 2019 whose work encompasses a broad expanse of topics ranging from writing, to music, geochemistry, criminal justice reform, and neuroscience.

Since 1981, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has granted fellowships to over 1000 artists and scholars in the form of a significant financial stipend to empower these individuals to continue their ground-breaking work, such as understanding the fundamental neural principles that underlie the perception of the visual world (Doris Tsao) and expanding the conventions of musical theater to reflect cultural diversity in America (Lin-Manuel Miranda). The award is a no-strings-attached investment to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” according to the Foundation.

Each of this year’s grantees will receive $625,000 over five years to fund their work, removing any financial barriers to creative exploration and innovation. For the two BRAIN Initiative scientists selected, the genius grant is a momentous accolade that recognizes their exceptional creativity, significant contributions to the neuroscience community, and potential to continue their innovative scientific research.

Vanessa Ruta, Ph.D., Professor at The Rockefeller University, New York, NY, uses the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to discern neural circuit programming in innate and learned behaviors. Ruta’s lab investigates the individual neuronal circuits that change with experience and evolve to modify future behavior. Ruta is part of the Kavli Neural Systems Institute, which fosters collaboration among Rockefeller’s dynamic community of scientists to generate new knowledge about the brain. Her National Institutes of Health (NIH) BRAIN Initiative project involves dissecting the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in learning and behavior. She has also received an R35 Research Program Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The goal of the NINDS R35 program is to allow an investigator whose record of research achievement demonstrates the ability to make major contributions to neuroscience, the freedom to embark on ambitious, creative, and/or longer-term research projects, without the constraints of specific aims.

Joshua Tenenbaum, Ph.D., Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, investigates the computational basis of learning, judgment, perception, and other cognitive processes. Tenenbaum is a contributing researcher to the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA)’s BRAIN Initiative program called Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS), which seeks to revolutionize machine learning by reverse-engineering the algorithms of the brain. The program is expressly designed as a dialogue between data science and neuroscience. Tenenbaum has also received funding support from two additional federal agencies involved in the BRAIN Initiative: the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).