Annual Message from Our PhD Program Director

-February 13, 2020-

Michael Silver
Director, Neuroscience PhD Program (2017-present)
Professor of Optometry and Vision Science and Neuroscience

This past year was an exciting and productive one for our program. In 2019, the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute (HWNI) celebrated its twentieth birthday. In the 1990s, Carla Shatz and Corey Goodman carried out much of the foundational work to unify the neuroscientists on our campus, culminating in the founding of HWNI and the Berkeley Neuroscience PhD Program. Although Corey has since moved out of his lab and into the world of venture capital, he remains an active member of the Berkeley Neuroscience community as an Adjunct Professor in HWNI. Last year, Corey and his partner, Marcia Barinaga, announced their plans to bequeath a substantial portion of their estate to HWNI, with half of this donation dedicated for support of our graduate students. We are profoundly grateful to Corey and Marcia for this transformative gift, which will create an endowment that will benefit the students in our program for many generations.

This past year also brought our academic program review. All units on our campus are comprehensively reviewed every ten years by an external committee of prestigious faculty from peer institutions. The review process involved a tremendous amount of work from several different groups within HWNI, and it was inspiring to me to see how many in our community rose to meet this challenge. The review committee’s report on HWNI and the Neuroscience PhD Program was generally extremely positive and emphasized our many successes, but the committee also noted areas of concern, including issues of affordability in the Bay Area for our graduate students.

Corey Goodman

Corey Goodman

We are continuing our efforts to identify and procure additional sources of financial support for the students in our program. In this context, the Weill Neurohub, launched last fall with a gift of more than $100 million, will fund neuroscience research, collaboration, and infrastructure at UCSF, the University of Washington, and our campus. The former Life Sciences Addition building has been renamed the Joan & Sanford I. Weill Hall, in honor of their generous gift. Critically, the Weill Neurohub includes funds specifically for graduate student support. 

Joan & Sanford I. Weill Hall

We congratulate the five students who obtained their PhD in Neuroscience in 2019: Ignas Cerniauskas, Jonathan Jui, Shariq Mobin, Kata Slama, and Daniel Toker. All of them are already engaged in exciting and diverse activities in their post-graduate lives, including founding a company, participating in the OpenAI Scholars program, and conducting postdoctoral research at the University of Michigan and UCLA. In the coming years, we look forward to following the scientific development and achievements of this group and the rest of our program alumni.

Several of our alumni returned to campus last fall to share their career decisions and experiences with our current students. These discussions illuminated the wide variety of opportunities available to graduates of our program. Many thanks to Gautam Agarwal, Natalia Bilenko, Linh Dang, Courtney Gallen, Aubrey Gilbert, Sarah Hillenbrand, Chung-Hay Luk, Helene Moorman, Beth Mormino, and Ariel Rokem for taking time to inform and mentor our current students, and congratulations on your many impressive accomplishments!

Last year, the HWNI Executive Committee voted to make GRE scores optional for applicants to our PhD program. Our current graduate students and alumni, especially Sara Popham and Christine Liu, were an important part of this policy change. One of the major factors in this decision was our concern that requiring GRE scores was harming our efforts to encourage diversity in our program, both by producing biased scores and imposing a financial burden on some applicants.

Graduates Jonathan Jui (left) and Shariq Mobin (right) are pictured with PhD Program Director Michael Silver (center).

From left to right: Jonathan Jui, Michael Silver, Shariq Mobin

We have been delighted to welcome our outstanding first-year class of 2019: Adrian Alejandro, Giovanni Anthony, Karina Bistrong, Julian Dishart, Yanabah Jaques, Leana King, Emily Meschke, Nate Munet, Lucia Rodriguez, Brooke Staveland, Kaeli Vandemark, and Jacob Ziontz. These students have already proven to be active and enthusiastic members of our community. Diversity can be conceived of in many different ways, but by practically any measure, our first-year class represents a tremendous success in our community’s recruitment, outreach, and inclusivity activities. These efforts have resulted in substantial increases in our total applicant pool and in the percentage of underrepresented minority students in this pool over the past several years.

Our Neuroscience PhD program continues to be highly successful in recruiting, training, educating, and graduating the top neuroscientists in our field. More detailed information is available in our profiles of current students and alumni, and you can see a selection of their publications here. It is my honor to be part of this community, and I am thrilled to continue another year in my role as Program Director!

Top row (left to right): Emily Meschke, Karina Bistrong, Jacob Ziontz, Julian Dishart, Adrian Alejandro, Kaeli Vandemark, Lucia Rodriguez Bottom row (left to right): Yanabah Jaques, Giovanni Anthony, Brooke Staveland, Nathan Munet (Nate), Leana King (pronounced Leena)