As Ingrid Johnsrude looks ahead, she knows looking back will play an important role in the future of Western’s Brain and Mind Institute (BMI).
The newly inaugurated director of the university’s largest research group is encouraged by new technological and research developments – as well as new partnerships on campus, in the community and with industry – that could pave the way for breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience.
“One way to do science is to keep coming up with new questions; we can do that. But another way to do science – and sometimes a very productive way – is to develop new tools so you can answer old questions in a new, perhaps more sensitive or more informative way. That’s extremely helpful,” she said.
Johnsrude, who stepped into the role of BMI director in March, follows to the position Psychology professor Mel Goodale, who founded the institute nearly two decades ago with Ravi Menon, a Medical Biophysics and Imaging professor.
Among Canada’s most innovative neuroscientists, Johnsrude came to Western in 2014, working to advance her research into understanding human behaviour through speech, language and hearing. Upon her arrival, she was named a Western Research Chair – Western’s first.
Her work focused on diagnosing and treating health problems, including hearing impairment and brain disease in the aging and elderly, has garnered international media attention.
“I came to Western because of the wonderful community in neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience; I wanted to be part of that community because it is a wonderful group of outward looking, highly productive excellent scientists. When the opportunity to serve them, to do what I could to make their working lives better, and smoother and more productive presented itself, I wanted to step into that role,” Johnsrude said.
What Goodale and Menon built is a testament to the skills and collegiality of BMI’s researchers – and to the vision that started it all, she added. Johnsrude is thankful to inherit a world-renowned research institute that since its inception “grew organically, like a big snowball.”
Over the past six years, BMI expanded from a group of 26 core researchers and 19 associate researchers to 42 core researchers and 43 associates. To build on BMI’s success, Johnsrude plans to build bridges to foster collaborations across campus, to enhance the reach of BMI training and to provide training and research services to groups that can benefit. She hopes to engage the community with Western and Western with the community, too, which is one of the motivations of BMI’s recent OurBrainsCAN initiative.
“We know engaging stakeholders in research is good for research. It can help fine-tune the questions being asked and the way they are being asked,” Johnsrude noted.
She hopes to see BMI researchers enhance their clinical skills in the process, too.
“There are scientific questions and there are tools – our job is to bring together the questions and the tools. Maybe community organizations and clinicians have questions and those who are trained in research practice, who don’t know much about the questions in the world, can apply tools to those questions,” she continued.
New partnerships and new developments can make once unanswerable questions answerable – and this makes science better, she stressed.
Funding and sustainability will continue to be a challenge for BMI, as is the case for many on campus, Johnsrude said. To move forward, a more cohesive vision and entity will be key. She sees a rethinking of the organizational structure as helping present a more unified face to the outside world, helping those who might want to be involved see where they may contribute.
“It makes the whole thing a little bit more accessible from the outside. We really have to be seen as an outward facing and outward reaching organization when attracting world class researchers and students,” she noted.
“Another challenge is making sure we are training people for the world they will meet when they leave, making sure they have skills that are generalizable and will serve them well, and knowing what those are. There is no system in place to help us figure out what will be in demand and how to develop those skills.”
The interdisciplinary nature of BMI is one of the strengths the group can leverage in meeting those challenges, however. Members are peppered across campus, in Music, Philosophy, Health Sciences, Social Science, Science – a diversity that can be rare in neuroscience, Johnsrude said. Trying to build on training links with associated faculties will continue to be important in tackling funding challenges and research questions.
For the group that will tackle them, Johnsrude is grateful.
“What a marvelous thing (Goodale) has built by bringing people together who share a common phenotype, a highly collaborative, low-ego group of excellent scientists, really great people to work with. I don’t know whether Mel did this on purpose, or whether it just happened, but there is a very particular phenotype here and it has served the institute very well.”