Faculty Q&A: Thomas M. Jessell

Interview by Bridget O'Brian
vol. 36, no. 12

When neurobiologist Tom Jessell joined Columbia University Medical Center 25 years ago it was, he said, to interact with cutting edge scientists and “join the fun” in the vibrant Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Physics. The fun included working with such Nobel laureates as Eric Kandel and Richard Axel, who work in nearby labs.

Thomas M. Jessell (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Thomas M. Jessell
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

An “understated British scientist with a wry wit and piercing mind,” as Axel describes him, Jessell is at the helm of the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative, where he is actively involved in the planning and design of the building where it will be housed. “This new initiative and the Greene Science Building will give us the opportunity to create something that brings together all of the neuroscientists at Columbia, and at the same time to combine that core focus on brain and mind with the technologies that are going to shape the field in coming years,” he said.

Jessell has spent decades studying how nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord wire themselves to form networks that process sensory signals from the outside world, then convert this information into movement. The principles that have emerged from his studies are now applicable to many other regions of the central nervous system.

His ground-breaking research earned him a Kavli Prize in 2008, which recognizes scientists for their seminal advances in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. He shared the $1 million award with two other neuroscientists. “Columbia has provided, for all the years I have been here, a quite remarkable and unmatched intellectual environment—one that has promoted science, individually and generally,” he told The Record in 2008. “In this academic climate, I have had the confidence to pursue hunches…and to prosper in a collegial setting that is rare and rewarding.”

Q. What does it mean to have this building devoted entirely to neuroscience?

The Jerome L. Greene Science Center gives Columbia the opportunity to develop an academic discipline unburdened by traditions and integrated within a modern urban university. We are trying to create an intellectual environment that will sustain itself for many decades to come, focusing on issues of brain and mind. For us, the Greene Center provides an unparalleled opportunity to think creatively about what the challenges are in brain science, today and in the future.

One apt comparison is with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. The Salk was founded in the early 1960s, and through the efforts of Salk himself, Jacob Bronowski and many others, emerged as a scientific think tank—science for its own sake and for its role in modern society. In the process, it attracted some of the greatest minds in 20th-century biology and medicine. A similar spirit of scientific ambition and exploration will pervade the Greene Center.

Q. What is the state of neuroscience today?

Neuroscience emerged as a coherent discipline through the merger of the more traditional fields of anatomy, biochemistry, physiology and psychology in the second half of the 20th century. This integration has now reached the point that many in the field are optimistic that even the most challenging questions about brain and its relationship to mind and cognition will be answered. By embedding the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative within the Greene Science Center, new technical and theoretical advances are likely to revolutionize the study of brain circuits and the behaviors they encode.

Q. What is unique about the way in which MBBI will allow this work to go on?

This new initiative and its Greene Science Center home will give Columbia scientists across many disciplines the ability to pursue their research in an intense and interactive environment that simply has no parallel within the University at present. The idea is to foster strong links between brain science and the physical sciences—with chemistry and physics and engineering, with computer science and applied statistics and mathematics, and with psychology. Our aim is to attract researchers who may never have considered their work in the light of neural science, yet who may hold the key to technical and conceptual advances. As importantly, we are not expanding this mind brain initiative in a vacuum; this initiative is only possible because of Columbia’s 250 years of intellectual pursuit. The business school, the School of International and Public Affairs and the School of the Arts will be our neighbors, our colleagues and our collaborators. In addition, the Greene will be an integral part of New York City—it will embrace the local community and the city at large, and beyond. This broader context expands the significance of the Greene Center, while demanding that the science contained within it meets the ambitions of the University and the needs of the city.

Q. What is different about the building itself that allows for that kind of engagement?

This is a building on a scale that is unusual for Columbia real estate. Each floor occupies almost 40,000 square feet of space, providing an opportunity to create highly interactive groups with related scientific interests. The Greene Center will place a premium on new ideas—and these can only emerge if scientists from different disciplines have the opportunity to talk to each other and share perspective and expertise on a common problem. The challenge then is to populate the building with close to a thousand scientists while maintaining an intimacy of scale and the means to promote interactions among groups ranging from a handful to a hundred scientists. How do you maintain intimacy and communication in such a large construction? [Architect] Renzo Piano and his group have thought very hard about that, and so have we. Renzo’s vision provides for the creation of small meeting spaces for discussions over coffee. At the same time, larger spaces will permit transparency and ease of interaction between groups, both vertically and horizontally. Individual labs will have access to some 15 to 20 other labs without relying on elevators, simply by using stairs.

Q. What kind of advances can be made using these connections between social sciences and humanities and neuroscientists?

Informative and productive dialogues with groups that traditionally have not been part of the neuroscience fold will be essential to the success of the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative. The analysis of neuronal networks involved in decision-making is emerging as one of the most exciting frontiers of neuroscience. What do decisions mean at the level of networks of nerve cells that assess and evaluate sensory information and use it to drive behavioral output? Such questions are highly relevant to Columbia Business School, as well as perhaps the Department of Economics. Now is the time to try to understand the common language of brain and business. The discussions on these issues need to start now.

Q. Can this kind of interdisciplinary approach lead to breakthroughs in research on Alzheimer’s, ALS or other neurologic and psychiatric diseases?

For a long time, the goal of neuroscientists has been to understand who we are and the way that we think, and more practically to use brain function to treat psychiatric and neurological disorders and traumatic injury. The research of the Greene science building will focus on topics that have direct relevance to these and other clinical problems. The Greene Center will serve as a discovery engine that will help to drive the departments of neurological surgery, psychiatry and neurology.

Q. You have spoken about the public face and nature of this campus and this building. How will it be accessible for members of the community beyond the University?

This building will be a success only if it engages the local community in the efforts that it houses. Great efforts have been made to ensure that the building attracts the community. We are placing great emphasis on the establishment of a brain science education and outreach center whose goal is to try to inform the local community, from K-12 through octogenarians about brain science and its potential impact on the 21st century. Part of what we are trying to do with this education and outreach center is to provide an easy way of answering questions that the community cares about. We also want to address the links between the undergraduate campus at Columbia and what is going on in this research-intensive facility. We want the undergraduates from the Morningside campus to walk that six blocks north. This building is going to focus on the problem of nerve and brain and mind, but in order to distinguish itself from many other enterprises, it has to become a sort of multicultural center for scientific curiosity and investigation.

Q. Is there one particular aspect that expresses what this building, this opportunity, means for the University and beyond?

We are scientists, and our stock in trade is to test hypotheses, to validate them or refute them. Beyond that, the Greene Center will serve as a vanguard for the way in which Columbia will excel in the coming decades.

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