by Greg St. Martin

I love brains,” said Rebecca Shansky, an assis­tant pro­fessor of psy­chology at North­eastern. “A lot.”

Shansky studies behav­ioral neu­ro­science at North­eastern, where she runs the Lab of Neu­roanatomy and Behavior in which she and her col­leagues examine the neural con­nec­tions between dif­ferent parts of the brain, par­tic­u­larly what these con­nec­tions might reveal about dif­fer­ences between the sexes.

Imagery of the brain’s neural network—which she called a “beau­tiful thing”—has trans­formed in recent years thanks to advances in flo­res­cent imaging. Using this tech­nique, researchers can tag what neu­rons they want to examine, which helps them probe the inter­ac­tions within the neural net­work to better under­stand the brain’s struc­ture and the neural bio­log­ical basis of human behavior. Her job involves exam­ining these col­orful images of neural net­works day in and day out.

Rebecca Shansky at What Lights My Fire
Rebecca Shansky, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology
That’s why I love it,” she said.

Shansky was among a group of Col­lege of Sci­ence fac­ulty who pre­sented TED-​​style talks Thursday night to about 125 stu­dents that focused on what fuels their pas­sion for sci­ence and dis­covery. The event, aptly titled “What Lights My Fire,” was the first install­ment of the new series, which the col­lege hopes to host each semester.

Net­work sci­en­tist Alessandro Vespig­nani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics, said his fire is driven by his “inner ‘control-​​freak’ personality”—though he’s not alone in pos­sessing this trait. Dating back to the dis­covery of fire itself, he said, people have real­ized that under­standing and con­trol­ling their sur­round­ings is key to sur­vival. A pri­mary example of this, he said, is pre­dicting the weather.

Pre­dic­tion is an inte­gral com­po­nent of the work of Vespig­nani and his col­leagues in Northeastern’s MoBS Lab, where they develop inno­v­a­tive math­e­mat­ical models and com­pu­ta­tional tools to better under­stand, antic­i­pate, and con­trol large-​​scale com­plex net­works and sys­tems. “Data alone do not tell you the future. It’s just a pic­ture,” he said. “Models are our crystal ball.”

For his part, Vespig­nani is the weath­erman of pre­dicting pan­demics. For months his team has been tracking the Ebola epi­demic in West Africa and its poten­tial to spread glob­ally. They use cutting-​​edge com­pu­ta­tional mod­eling to visu­alize the disease’s poten­tial spread by lever­aging pop­u­la­tion and human mobility data.

Kim Lewis, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Biology, said that micro­bi­ology lights his fire, noting that “Microbes interact with each and every crea­ture on the planet” and affect most if not all bodily and cog­ni­tive func­tions. Lewis said his team in the Northeastern’s Antimi­cro­bial Dis­covery Center attempt to attack many unsolved prob­lems and para­doxes. “Why?” he asked. “Because it’s fun.”

One example is treating chronic infec­tions, which in cases like MRSA actively resist cer­tain antibi­otics. His work has focused on a spe­cial­ized class of cells pro­duced by pathogens called per­sis­ters, which lie dor­mant. But in ground­breaking research pub­lished a year ago, Lewis’ pre­sented a novel approach to treat and elim­i­nate the potent bac­terium using a drug called ADEPthat effec­tively wakes up these dor­mant cells and ini­ti­ates a self-​​destruct mechanism.

Mark Patterson, Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Mark Patterson, Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
What lights pro­fessor Mark Patterson’s fire is “the fire of life,” a phrase used by Max Kleiber as the title for his 1961 book in which the Swiss sci­en­tist pre­sented fun­da­mental con­cepts for under­standing energy metabolism.

Pat­terson, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Depart­ment of Marine and Envi­ron­mental Sci­ences and the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering, dis­cussed his fas­ci­na­tion with energy metab­o­lism. He directs the Field Robotic Lab­o­ra­tory at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center, where he builds autonomous under­water robots equipped with myriad sen­sors that can be deployed to scan marine life on the ocean’s floor.

You can swim these devices over respiring or pho­to­syn­the­sizing land­scapes, and you can col­lect data that show you oxygen trans­ac­tions at the scale of foot­ball fields,” he explained. With these data, he can build math­e­mat­ical models that show how these ecosys­tems function.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on November 3, 2014