UW News

November 6, 2015

Swartz Foundation grant to boost UW research in computational neuroscience

UW News

Two University of Washington faculty members have been awarded a grant from The Swartz Foundation to support research in theoretical neuroscience. The award establishes the UW as the latest of the Swartz Foundation-supported centers for innovation in this growing field, which spans mathematics, statistics, physics and biology.

“This award is a recognition of what is happening here at the UW in theoretical neuroscience research,” said Adrienne Fairhall, a UW associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. “It is an invitation to join the community of other Swartz-supported institutes that are advancing this field, as well as an opportunity to bring together different researchers and fields here at the UW.”

As the 12th research institution to receive support from the Swartz Foundation, UW will join the ranks of Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities, as well as Caltech and the Salk Institute. The grant will support postdoctoral fellows to pursue research with faculty across the disciplines spanning computational and theoretical neuroscience, as well as collaborate with researchers at other Swartz-funded institutions.

“We want to bring in brilliant young thinkers at the interface of biology, physics and mathematics and to let those fellows identify opportunities to bring together research underway in multiple laboratories,” said UW associate professor of applied mathematics Eric Shea-Brown.

Eric Shea-Brown, Adrienne Fairhall and Christof Koch

Eric Shea-Brown (left), Adrienne Fairhall (center) and Christof Koch (right) pose in Friday Harbor during the Summer Workshop on the Dynamic Brain, a course that the UW Computational Neuroscience Program has run with the Allen Institute for Brain Science since 2014. Koch is currently the president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute.Mark Wronkiewicz

The UW’s national standing in this area sparked the interest of the Swartz Foundation, founded in 1994 by physicist and engineer Jerome Swartz, last year when Fairhall, along with the Allen Institute for Brain Science, hosted a meeting of Swartz fellows at the UW. With the new UW Institute for Neuroengineering and the UW-based Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, the Swartz Foundation noted the UW’s strong institutional investment in this domain and invited Fairhall and Shea-Brown to draft a proposal outlining how the UW could contribute to the foundation’s mission.

“The Swartz Foundation funds the most innovative mathematical and theoretical approaches to understanding brain function — trying to find the underlying algorithms and principles involved,” said Fairhall. “The UW has such excellent faculty, both in neuroscience and the theory of neuroscience, that fellows here will have lots of options for interactions.”

Fairhall and Shea-Brown intend for researchers supported by the Swartz Foundation to have the freedom to explore a variety of projects and unique collaborations to address outstanding questions in computational neuroscience. For example, scientists are trying to understand the mathematical and statistical processes through which neural circuits create and evaluate new behaviors. Computational neuroscientists are also trying to learn how neurons in the brain — structurally and mathematically — encode, store and access information.

Fairhall and Shea-Brown hope this support from the Swartz Foundation will kindle further growth in this area over time, foster new collaborations and train the next generation of computational neuroscientists. The federal BRAIN Initiative has specifically noted a need for theoretical and computational models to understand brain function. UW efforts in this area are strengthened by collaborative interactions with the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Google and Microsoft on large-scale brain models and brain-inspired computation, Fairhall said.

“Among the people who are leaders in this field today, many have passed through these Swartz-funded centers,” said Fairhall. “We would love to do that same thing and provide a launching base for new people to come in and succeed.”


For more information, contact Fairhall at 206-616-4148 or fairhall@uw.edu and Shea-Brown at 206-685-6635 or etsb@uw.edu.