Annual Message from Our Director

-December 7, 2020-

Ehud (Udi) Isacoff
Professor of Neurobiology, Molecular and Cell Biology Department
Director, Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and Berkeley Brain Initiative (2013-present)
Director, Weill Neurohub East (2019-present)
Evan Rauch Chair in Neuroscience 

2020 has been anything but typical. It has been a difficult year for our world and for our community with COVID-19, incidents of racial injustice, wildfires here in California, and a contentious election. It is a time of both challenge and change, and I am so proud of how the HWNI community has been navigating and adapting to these unprecedented times, and doing the best we can to continue our work while taking care of ourselves and each other.

We welcomed 12 new Neuroscience PhD Program students this fall, and you can learn more about them here. Starting graduate school during a pandemic is not easy, to say the least, and we are incredibly proud of everything they are doing. To help our new students and other community members connect and engage with each other during this time, we are holding our events virtually. Our annual Berkeley Neuroscience Conference was held online in October, and although we greatly missed getting together in person, I am glad we could still interact, share our research, and discuss the critical issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our institute.

Michael Silver Optometry

Michael Silver. Photo by Elena Zhukova.

In exciting news, this summer we launched the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, led by director Michael Silver who is also director of our Neuroscience PhD Program. Other co-founders include HWNI member and professor of psychology Jack Gallant, teaching professor of neurobiology David Presti, professor of psychology Dacher Keltner, and journalism professor and bestselling author Michael Pollan. This truly unique center will use psychedelics to investigate the neuroscience of cognition, perception, and emotion, as well as educating the public about psychedelic research, and training facilitators to guide participants in psychedelic experiences. The center will complement clinical research into the use of psychedelics as therapeutics, but will focus on what psychedelics can teach us about the brain and mind. Congratulations to Michael Silver and colleagues on this incredible achievement!

I would also like to congratulate Jack Gallant and Chunlei Liu (HWNI member and associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences) for becoming the new co-directors of the Berkeley Brain Imaging Center (BIC), and thank former director Mark D’Esposito (HWNI member and professor of psychology) for helping to build and lead the BIC over the years.

We are also so proud that John Ngai, former director of HWNI and the Neuroscience PhD Program, was chosen to lead the National Institutes of Health’s multibillion-dollar BRAIN Initiative earlier this year. The initiative has been the major engine driving the development of new neuroscience technologies, and John will now take it to the next level to develop new treatments for brain disorders. It is a great source of pride that one of our own will be in charge of a national effort that is so important for neuroscience. John left Berkeley to take the position, but remains connected as a professor emeritus of neurobiology. He was instrumental in bringing engineering and physical science faculty into HWNI, helping to shape us into the interdisciplinary institute we are today. We deeply appreciate all John has done for HWNI over the years. 


Art Shimamura

In sad news, we are mourning the loss of emeritus professor of psychology Art Shimamura who passed away on October 6, 2020. Art was an important member of the HWNI community, a pioneering researcher in cognitive neuroscience, and a wonderful teacher, mentor, and person. I would like to extend our deepest condolences to his family. You can read a remembrance of Art here

150 Years of Women at BerkeleyThis year, the campus has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of women being allowed to attend UC Berkeley. We are proud that Helen Wills, a Berkeley alum and namesake of our institute, and Marian Diamond, a world-renowned neuroscientist and member of HWNI, are being honored as key figures in Berkeley’s history. I would like to acknowledge and honor all of the fantastic women scientists in our community, past and present, who have made innumerable contributions to our understanding of the brain, mind, and nervous system. 

Many HWNI members won awards this year for their exceptional research, teaching, and public outreach — all important aspects of our mission. Corey Goodman won the Gruber Neuroscience Prize, and Bob Knight won the Howard Crosby Warren Medal, in honor of their foundational contributions to the field of neuroscience. Younger researchers Andrea Gomez, Markita Landry, Michael Yartsev, Kevin Weiner, and Stephen Brohawn all won early career investigator awards for their promising and innovative research. Marla Feller and Evan Miller won awards for their outstanding teaching and commitment to education, and Matthew Walker won the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization. These are just some of the many awards our members won this year, and I’d like to congratulate each and every one of them.

Last year, we launched the Weill Neurohub in collaboration with UCSF and the University of Washington, and I have been happy to serve as the director of Weill Neurohub East. This year, the Weill Neurohub awarded funding to five inaugural projects to develop foundational tools and platforms to fuel new therapeutic discoveries. I am pleased to note that HWNI members David Feinberg, Chunlei Liu, Kristofer Bouchard, Michel Maharbiz, and Na Ji are leaders on four of the projects. I’m also happy to announce that HWNI member Helen Bateup is part of a collaborative team that was recently awarded a grant from the new Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s initiative, led by Nobel laureate and Berkeley professor Randy Schekman. Finally, we are incredibly proud that our members Stephen Brohawn, Diana Bautista, Hillel Adesnik, and Markita Landry are using their expertise to join in the fight against COVID-19. They have been awarded funding to study the novel coronavirus, search for new treatments, and develop new methods of testing.

In the next year, we are eagerly looking forward to the arrival of new HWNI faculty members Doris Tsao and Yvette Fisher. They will both be joining the neurobiology division of the molecular and cell biology department in July 2021; Doris as a professor and Yvette as an assistant professor. We are thrilled to have them as part of our community! 

As we head into the winter break, I want to express my gratitude to each of you for your willingness and ability to continue to move the mission of HWNI forward with grace and empathy during these challenging times. It is an honor and a privilege to serve this remarkable community, and I look forward to 2021 with an even greater appreciation of how resilient, courageous, creative, and kind you are. 

Stay safe and be well,