Supplement: Collaboration Brings Research Breakthroughs

Collaboration Brings Research Breakthroughs Lisa Staiano-Coico, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs At Temple University, interdisciplinary collaboration plays a vital role in the success of research programs. Seventeen schools and colleges, along with specialized research centers and institutes, make Temple an excellent place for investigators to exchange ideas, assist one another in the design of joint projects, and benefit from the existen

Jan 1, 2008
The Scientist Staff
Collaboration Brings Research Breakthroughs
Lisa Staiano-Coico, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

At Temple University, interdisciplinary collaboration plays a vital role in the success of research programs. Seventeen schools and colleges, along with specialized research centers and institutes, make Temple an excellent place for investigators to exchange ideas, assist one another in the design of joint projects, and benefit from the existence of specialized expertise located directly within the institution they share.

"When it comes to nurturing world-class collaborative interdisciplinary research, Temple offers a thrilling combination of interdisciplinary breadth and institutional support," says Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Lisa Staiano-Coico.

Spatial Studies

Why do some people excel at packing a car trunk? And why does that matter to the future of American technology?

The answer is spatial intelligence, a key issue in cognitive science and an important aspect of problem solving in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Spatial literacy - an ability to navigate space successfully and to rotate an object in the mind from many different directions and dimensions - helps geoscientists visualize the formation of the earth, aids neurosurgeons in navigating the brain based on images garnered from MRIs, and yields - yes - a perfectly packed trunk.

To comprehend the basic science of spatial learning and to develop better methods of teaching spatial concepts, the National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year, $15.5 million grant to establish the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC) at Temple. Dr. Nora Newcombe, the James H. Glackin Distinguished Faculty Fellow, professor in the Department of Psychology, and a recent inductee to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, serves as the principal investigator for the grant, which includes researchers from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Temple University. The consortium's talent draws from leaders working in cognitive science, psychology, computer science, education and neuroscience, as well as practicing geoscientists and engineers, and teachers in the Chicago public schools.

"All of us are born with a certain threshold of spatial skills," says Newcombe. "But what kinds of experiences lead to improvement? What kinds of teaching best support spatial learning?"

The SILC team is studying how the brain handles spatial information and why some people may develop greater spatial abilities than others. In one example, Dr. Tim Shipley, associate professor of Psychology, is examining how undergraduates read a textbook page embedded with graphs using an "eye tracker" that tracks and records eye movements during reading. The assumption of the study is that students who avoid consulting graphs may encounter difficulties with other spatial cognitive tasks.

"By comparing the patterns of movement to uncover any differences," says Shipley. "We may someday be able to teach students to 'see' differently."

Dr. Jason Chein, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Visiting Collaborating Researcher at Princeton University, believes that a good working memory--the kind of memory used to hold a phone number in mind, or to compare and combine different ideas in a conversation--may indicate high spatial intelligence. In ongoing experiments, Chein is looking at how to increase the capacity of working memory to improve spatial skills.

"Our hope is that in ten years, we'll have a transformative effect on education," says Newcombe. "That people will learn to think spatially and that we will have a new spatial curriculum to offer teachers."

Drugs & the Brain

The major element linking the projects of the twenty-four collaborating researchers working in the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CSAR) is--simply--drugs of abuse, says Director Martin Adler, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Pharmacology. "But with researchers from every discipline imaginable, the variety of research done at CSAR is phenomenal."

As one of only a few centers in the world specializing in the basic science of drugs of abuse, CSAR conducts groundbreaking work on mechanisms of addiction and how addictive substances interact with the nervous and immune systems. The Center receives funding from a $4.7 million P30 Center Grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as well as numerous grants to individual CSAR investigators.

Ongoing investigations range from interactions of common drugs of abuse such as cigarettes, marijuana, and cocaine, to neuroimmunopharmacology (the study of the effects of abused drugs on the immune system and of the immune system on the effects of drugs acting on the nervous system). One ongoing study by Dr. Ronald Tuma, professor of Physiology, Dr. Doina Ganea, chair of the department of Microbiology, and Adler has found that selective chemical compounds that act on one type of receptor for cannabinoids have therapeutic potential for treatment of such conditions as multiple sclerosis, stroke, and spinal cord injury.

One of CSAR's newest areas of research areas involves chemokines, small soluble proteins that affect communication between cells of the immune system. Adler's laboratory discovered that when directed into specific areas of the brain, chemokines block the pain-killing actions of opiates and the effects on body temperature of cannabinoids. These findings might provide clues as to how scientists might eventually fine-tune the activity of drugs. Based on their ongoing research, CSAR investigators have suggested that chemokines will eventually be considered a class of molecules that mediate transmission of information in the brain, on a par with neurotransmitters, the discovery of which revolutionized treatment for depression.

"If this is true, and we think it is," says Adler, who delivered his theory as an invited speaker at the New York Academy of Sciences Frontiers in Science series, "this new paradigm will have huge implications relative to drug abuse, neuroinflammation, inflammatory pain, and neurodegenerative diseases."

A Facility for Excellence

Last spring, Temple broke ground for a new medical school building that will be a living, working symbol of the University's commitment to a brilliant future.

At a projected cost of $150 million, the 11-story medical school building will provide state-of-the-art teaching and research spaces for the highest caliber students, researchers, scientists and educators and, in turn, enhance the quality of care for community residents and the greater metropolitan area. The new building will provide 249,000 square feet of research and laboratory space that will significantly enhance the School's clinical and basic science research enterprise, help attract the most respected physician-scientists and increase opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration with flexible integrated laboratory and classroom settings.

"With new facilities and a dynamic new president--and with humanity facing increasingly complex challenges that can only be tackled by a multidisciplinary research approach--this is an exciting time to be at Temple," says Staiano-Coico. "Our commitment to collaborative interdisciplinary research that makes a difference in people's everyday lives will be unwavering."

For more information about Temple research programs, visit www.research.temple.edu