Upcoming meeting

Centennial Fellows 10 Year Reunion Conference
June 2-4, 2009
Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis, MO

Presentation Abstracts

Kathleen AkinsNeurophilosophy Today
NOTE: Presentation for Kathleen Akins to be given by Lyle Crawford, Simon Fraser University

Neuroscience has been called “the new philosophy.” The premise of the McDonnell Project in Neuroscience and Philosophy was that an interdisciplinary field of neurophilosophy, a field that utilizes the strengths and resources of both disciplines, is a better way forward. I have two goals in this talk: 1) to give a sense of the nature and value of the new field of neurophilosophy, and 2) to indicate how the McDonnell Project has contributed to the development of this field. I introduce neurophilosophy and suggest a mildly artificial, but I hope helpful, taxonomy of its scope and aims. Using illustrative examples, many of which feature McDonnell Project members, I consider general issues in the philosophy of neuroscience, neuroscientific research on more or less pre-defined philosophical targets such as free will and consciousness, and neuroscience that is integrated into, or the basis of, philosophical theories. My emphasis throughout is on issues traditionally falling under the domains of philosophy of mind and philosophy of science; however, I also acknowledge the burgeoning field of neuroethics.


Wendy Bickmore

Putting the genome on the map
Wendy Bickmore, MRC Human Genetics Unit

The DNA sequence of the human genome has revolutionised the way that we think about, and do, biology. However I have argued that we need more than the linear information of the DNA sequence in order to understand how genes are regulated.  Ten years ago, we were just beginning to appreciate that the three-dimensional organisation of the genome in the cell nucleus can control gene function. Over the last decade we made huge strides in mapping out the spatial folding pattern of the genome. Now we can even go beyond this - we can reconfigure the spatial map of the genome, giving us a new tool to manipulate the expression of human genes and adding a new dimension to our understanding of how genes are controlled in normal development and in disease.


John CarlstromCosmology with the Cosmic Microwave Background
John Carlstrom, University of Chicago

The last ten years has been a remarkable time for cosmology. We now have an inventory of the stuff that makes up the universe and a testable model for the origin and evolution of the universe. The model contains some remarkable components about which we know very little. Ordinary matter - all of the physics you can find in text books -- accounts for only a few percent of the make-up of the universe, Dark Matter accounts for roughly a quarter, and rest is the recently discovered, mysterious Dark Energy which is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. The model starts with a quantum fluctuation which leads eventually to all the splendid structure around us today.  Much of the model has been determined from measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the fossil radiation from the big bang.  In this talk I will review these measurements and outline observations to learn more about dark energy and to probe the first instants of the universe.


Stanislas DehaeneMathematical intuitions and their cerebral bases
Stanislas Dehaene, INSERM-CEA

What are the origins of the human capacities for mathematics? My proposal is that we “recycle” evolutionarily older brain mechanisms that provide core and often non-conscious intuitions of space, time and number. In the last ten years, our understanding of number sense has become profoundly rooted in cognitive neuroscience. Neuroimaging studies indicate that a core system of number is present in all humans, in a cortical region in the depth of the intracortical sulcus. The human neural code in this area, as inferred from fMRI studies, parallels single-neuron recordings in macaque monkeys. A key open question is how this core representation is changed by language learning, education, and mathematical symbols.


Leonid KruglyakGenetic basis of variation between individuals
Leonid Kruglyak, Princeton University

Ten years ago, less than 10% of the human genome had been sequenced, and we knew very little about the genetic basis of variation between individuals. Today, based on the completed genome sequence and subsequent characterization of sequence differences in human populations, we can routinely study the effects of millions of sequence differences on variation in disease susceptibility and normal human traits in thousands of patients. However, such studies have not explained most human heritable variation. My work over the past ten years focused on (1) laying the foundation for studies of human variation and (2) studying genetic variation in simple species (yeast and roundworms) to understand the basic rules of how DNA sequence differences lead to trait differences. I will describe our progress and future directions.


Mercedes PascualSimple models for complex ecological systems: insights from disease dynamics
Mercedes Pascual, University of Michigan

The interaction of variability across different temporal, spatial or organizational scales is one of the fundamental properties of complex systems, from which important challenges arise to the understanding and prediction of ecological and epidemiological dynamics.   Our work has addressed problems of scale within two main themes in the  population dynamics of infectious diseases.  The first one concerns the inverse problem of disentangling the respective roles of extrinsic environmental factors and intrinsic system feedbacks, given the temporal scales of variability present in the population levels of the disease.  Examples include results for the dynamics of cholera and malaria and questions on the role of climate variability.   The second series of studies addresses the complexity of the mathematical models themselves, in terms of the spatial or organizational scales that must be explicitly represented to capture the relevant dynamics.  


Daniel PovinelliDecade in Waiting: Stagnation in the Field of Comparative Psychology, 1999-2009
Daniel J. Povinelli, University of Louisiana

A decade ago, comparative psychology was mired in an anthropomorphic muddle. As they had been for years, researchers were asking key questions about the capacity of various animal species to think about the world in human-like ways: Do they reason about mental states? Are the capable of analogical reasoning? Do they form cognitive maps? Are they capable of hierarchically-based categorization? Can they represent unobservable causal mechanisms to explain observable events? However, the key conceptual analyses that could successfully sort out the answers to these questions were not widely agreed upon, and so little progress was being made in answering these important questions. A decade later, little has changed. Although the key conceptual distinctions have now been widely disseminated, few researchers have used them to help craft their experimental practices. Instead, a confused muddle of experimental results and interpretations remains. A decade-long research project aimed at documenting and widely disseminating the specific conceptual fallacies of specific researchers and their experimental programs, together with the promotion of logically defensible alternative research strategies, might go some way toward reforming current practice. 


Stefan RahmstorfClimate Science - Some thoughts on progress in the past 10 years and some ideas for the next
Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam University

Climate science has greatly advanced over the past ten years, and its relevance for society has become ever more urgent. One automatic advance is of course new data: another ten years of measurements of temperature, sea level, sea ice cover and many other observables. In addition there has been much progress in collecting more reliable paleoclimatic data from ice cores and other sources, and advances in modelling climates of the past as well as current and future climate changes. The issue of abrupt climate shifts or "tipping points", subject of my own McDonnell fellowship, has become a booming subfield of climate science.

If I were to submit a new proposal  it would be focussed on understanding and modelling of sea level rise. Current climate models greatly underestimate past sea level rise, and simple semi-empirical approaches predict a rise by the year 2100 which is three times larger than that derived from those physics-based models. Those models do not capture all the physical processes we now see happening at the margins of the big ice sheets of Greenland Antarctica, and we urgently need to better understand how these ice sheets will respond to warming. Losing even just 5% of the ice on Greenland and Antarctica in the coming centuries would alone raise global sea level by more than 3 meters, drowning coastal cities and entire island nations.


Keith WailooViruses, Genes, Cancer, and Pain: The Paradoxes of Progress in the Biomedical Sciences
Keith Wailoo, Rutgers University

The Fellowship has transformed scholarship, bringing history of science into robust and sustained interaction with contemporary debates in science, health care, and health policy.  The Fellowship has produced many studies: a cross-disciplinary book investigating an organ transplant error; a history of cancer; an edited volume analyzing contemporary debates over the Human Papillomavirus vaccine (Gardasil); a book on how genetics redefines our understanding of race and identity in the clinic, in law, and in genealogy; a comparative history of Tay-Sachs, Sickle Cell Disease, and Cystic Fibrosis; and a book-length study of how pain and pain medicine have evolved in recent decades.  These projects have sustained a broader program – supporting conferences, training graduate students in multiple disciplines, promoting innovative historical analyses that inform public policy, and advancing the understanding of the sweeping implications of the biomedical sciences in the modern world.  If I were writing another McDonnell Foundation essay today, I would build on the network of scholars and students who have been central to the productivity of these 10 years to extend this program – focusing still on the intellectual and cultural complexities, political tensions, and philosophical entanglements of the biomedical sciences.