On Oct. 25, 2018, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences held its fifth annual Champions of the Brain Fellows. The event celebrates BCS graduate students and the generosity of donors who make it possible for students to explore their scientific pursuits and to drive the department’s research.

The event kicked off with a colloquium by Professor Feng Zhang, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT. He presented “Exploration of Microbial Diversity to Discover Novel Molecular Technologies.” Zhang discussed his research exploring this microbial diversity through bioinformatics, biochemical, and molecular techniques to better understand the fundamental ways in which living organisms sense and respond to their environment and ultimately to harness these systems to improve human health.

By using the cutting-edge technologies such as CRISPR and looking to nature for inspiration, he hopes to accelerate basic research into human disease and identify new opportunities for therapies to treat them. At the end of his presentation, Zhang spoke about the importance of teamwork in his lab, and the important role that graduate students have in research.

“When you do research, you want to work with graduate students because they are open-minded, willing to take risks and willing to work on things that are challenging because they don’t know something is hard yet,” said Zhang. “For any given project, you might use computation, programming, chemistry, biochemistry, animal behavior to approach the same problem. Sometimes it’s hard to embody all of that in someone who is just starting out on a project. By training more of these multidisciplinary individuals, they can then go out into their respective disciplines and do more collaborative work.”

Following the colloquium, attendees were treated to a reception and dinner in the Simons Center Reading Room. Department Head James DiCarlo provided opening remarks, echoing Zhang’s sentiments about the importance of graduate students.

“Our graduate students are incredibly talented individuals in an early stage of their career, where they are able to take the scientific risks that often lead to exciting discoveries and breakthroughs. They enable our ability to attract and retain exceptional faculty members in our department, and that’s not all,” said DiCarlo. “Our graduate students also provide mentorship to our undergraduates doing research in BCS labs and they contribute to the vibrancy in our department by interconnecting our labs and community.”

DiCarlo then introduced a video presentation in which fellows spoke about their respective experiences as fellowship recipients, and how the generosity of donors not only enables their research but also enhances their overall experiences as graduate students at MIT.

The evening concluded with remarks from Barrie R. Zesiger HM, MIT Corporation Life Member, founding Champion of the Brain Fellows, and longtime supporter of MIT. In her remarks Zesiger noted her and her husband Albert’s plan to continue that tradition through a bequest, part of which will support the department.

The annual Champions of the Brain Fellows event honors donors who commit $70,000 or more through an endowed, expendable, or corporate gift to support graduate students at the forefront of research in BCS.