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Helping bridge the divide between engineers and neuroscientists


I write a lot about the various ways that faculty at Stanford collaborate, often between schools and departments that speak very different academic languages. Those stories often make these collaborations seem effortless, as if all engineers just happen to know enough cell biology to make the perfect tool to solve a problem faced by their colleagues across the street in the School of Medicine labs.

Actually, it’s much harder than that.

I recently wrote about a new Stanford Neurosciences Institute initiative called the NeuroFab, which has a specific goal of helping engineers and neuroscientists speak to each other and overcome some of those cultural differences.

Mechanical engineer Nicholas Melosh, PhD, who runs the NeuroFab, told me that he envisioned it as a way of helping pair up neuroscientists in need of new tools with engineers who knew how to build them.

In my story I focused on a collaboration between Gregory Pitner, a graduate student in engineering, and Matthew Abramian, a postdoctoral fellow with a background in neuroscience. Together, they're trying to use nanotubes arrays designed by Pitner to monitor the activity of cells, Abramian’s area of expertise. Abramian works in the lab of John Huguenard, PhD, who studies widespread activity in the brain and knows firsthand the limitations of current recording technology.

Abramian said they both had to do some educating before they got started.

“Engineers just think we’ll grow some cells and the next day we’re going to record,” Abramian told me. “That’s not how it works at all.” Likewise, Abramian was surprised by the amount of control engineers have over their designs.

Melosh said that the ultimate goal of facilitating these kinds of collaborations is to make tools that help neuroscientists understand and eventually heal the brain.

“Eventually we’d like to create a toolset that would impact many neuroscience labs,” Melosh told me.

Previously: Circuit breaker: One Stanford scientist and his quest to control epileptic seizures, Brain's wiring more dynamic than originally thought and The brain makes its own Valium: Built-in seizure brake?
Image of Gregory Pitner and Matthew Abramian by Linda Cicero

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