Real-world learning involves the whole brain working as a unified system. By synthesizing systems-level neuroscience and computational modeling, CELEST aims to understand brain mechanisms responsible for learning in real-world situations and to translate this knowledge into intelligent technologies. In order to advance this goal, CELEST promotes an innovative integration of experimental (bench), theoretical (models), and technical (applications) approaches to scientific research and graduate education.
CELEST’s strategy for organizing scientific research is illustrated in the above figure. The top of the pyramid signifies the unique purpose of CELEST: to understand how the brain learns as a self-sufficient and autonomous system in novel or dynamically changing environments. Most research in experimental neuroscience, even at the systems level, is inherently analytic – neuroscientists break down complex behaviors into their constituent parts in a piecemeal approach. CELEST instead fosters a synthetic and integrative approach to develop models informed by rich experimental data gathered within and outside of CELEST to investigate how the brain’s complex networks support learning. This synthesis is critically dependent on multi-level experimental approaches in animal models and humans. Coordination of this kind of large-scale research program demands a center-mode organization of scientific research. This center-wide effort informs designs for technologies with significant potential impacts in society, including the development of designs for intelligent learning technologies to complement and extend human abilities. CELEST thus translates the fruits of basic research from bench to models to applications.
While CELEST does not directly develop technologies or commercial products, through strategic research it seeks to motivate and inspire transformational designs for technologies. This concerted approach, which includes experimental (anatomical, physiological, imaging, and behavioral) and modeling efforts, requires a systems-level understanding of learning with significant potential for translation to technology through a center-level coordinated effort across laboratories and institutions.
Now in Year 9, CELEST’s research strategy has been updated to focus on Capstone Projects: projects that seek to unify and integrate CELEST research. This refocusing of the scientific strategy will catalyze the efforts to obtain large-scale funding in order to sustain CELEST’s legacy even as NSF center-level funding tapers away. CELEST has already begun to see the success of this strategy in the form of funding for sponsored research from large (e.g., Hewlett-Packard: HP) and small (e.g., Neurala) companies (e.g., a NASA STTR Phases I and II: Small Business Technology Transfer award through Neurala). CELEST research also feeds two recently awarded large-scale research grants. An NIH Autism Center of Excellence has been awarded to Boston University, headed by Prof. Helen Tager-Flusberg of Psychology; two of the four major scientific projects within the center are headed by CELEST investigators (Guenther and Shinn-Cunningham) who are extending CELEST systems-level neuroscience research to the study of autism. Similarly, ONR has awarded CELEST investigator Michael Hasselmo a Multi-University Research Initiative (MURI) grant to extend his basic research on hippocampus to the development of navigation systems for autonomous agents.
CELEST’s scientific purpose is supported in several additional ways. CELEST is educating a new generation of scientists through cross-training in experimentation, modeling, and technology design. This approach encourages experimentalists to embrace modeling and technology design, modelers to embrace experiments and technology design, and technologists to embrace experimentation and modeling. CELEST fosters participation of groups underrepresented in science by recruiting, enabling, promoting, and supporting these individuals at all levels of CELEST, for example, through paid summer research internships for undergraduate students.