Page 13 - arches_summer_2012

Basic HTML Version

11
summer
2012
arches
Siddharth Ramakrishnan is an educa-
tor and researcher in the Bioelectronics
Systems Lab of the Columbia University
Department of Electrical Engineering. A
neuroscientist by training, he has focused
on the hormonal modulation of neurons,
embryonic brain development, and the use
of microchips to record neural cell electrical activity. 
That said, the picture of Ramakrishnan your brain neurons just
helped construct is likely a bit out of focus. No old-school, lab-coated
science wonk, the 33-year-old native of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, in south-
east India, exudes a kind of gee-whiz wonder about his chosen field
and has collaborations with visual artists to share that wonder with the
public. It is a métier that strikes a familial chord; Ramakrishnan’s father
is a surgeon, his mother an artist.
When he begins classroom teaching in January 2013 as the inau-
gural Jennie M. Caruthers Chair in Neuroscience, Ramakrishnan will
bring a breadth of research and teaching experience and a mind-set
that aligns nicely with Puget Sound’s established vision for the interdis-
ciplinary neuroscience program he will help guide into the future.
“Neuroscience has been gaining critical momentum through the
latest advances in imaging, the development of more sophisticated
genetic tools, and the use of hybrid neuroelectronic devices,” says
Ramakrishnan, whose main interest lies in a branch of neuroscience
known as neuroethology—the study of animal behavior and its under-
lying neural circuitry.
Only recently has the discipline of neuroscience—at its basic level,
the study of the brain and nervous system—grown from its roots in
biology to now encompass aspects of chemistry, physics, engineering,
mathematics, health science, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and
computer science, the latter being Ramakrishnan’s field of basic train-
ing. But while working on his master’s degree with an emphasis in
artificial intelligence, his heart and mind began to stray from bits and
bytes, sensing that such intelligence was
too
artificial, aimed as it was at
boosting processing speeds rather than emulating brain circuitry.
“I needed to understand brains better, so I took a class in neu-
roethology,” he says. “We studied animal behavior in the field and in
News, trends, history, and phenomena from the campus
labs, and then investigated the neural circuitry underlying those behav-
iors. I was hooked. Neuroscience was exciting, so I decided to make the
shift and began focusing on using artificial neural networks to model
pattern-generating neural circuits in snails—circuits similar to those
that control rhythmic behaviors like feeding, respiration, and locomo-
tion in all animals.”
His initial sense of excitement has neither waned nor shifted. Last
year Ramakrishnan took part in an art-meets-science forum at the
National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and, prior to his
presentation, titled “Looking within and without: Neuro|Science and
Art|Science,” was asked by the moderator, “What gets you up in the
morning? What gets you excited?”
He replied, “Brains. Especially snail brains.”
Ramakrishnan’s conviction that science and the arts need to be
cross-pollinated is part and parcel of his work, including public out-
reach and plans to tap into the culture at Puget Sound that spans dis-
ciplines, breaks down language barriers between those disciplines, and
helps create what he calls a “third culture” of art and science.
“There’s a lot of exciting research being done by scientists, but
laypeople are rarely able to enter that world in a meaningful way. … I
think that needs to be completely broken down wherever possible.”
Which is why Ramakrishnan’s current work at Columbia design-
ing a bionic chip that will harvest energy at the cellular level is
the campaign
A new endowed faculty chair
in neuroscience
“What gets you up in the morning?”
“Brains. Especially snail brains.”
INTERDISCIPLINARY THINKING
Siddharth Ramakrishnan’s thing is bio-
electronic devices, but he’s also interested in the visual representation of
science and is working with artists to make research more accessible to
everyone.