Twin academics Dani S. Basset, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor and director of the Complex Systems Lab, and Perry Zurn, a professor of philosophy at American University, were recently featured as guests on NPR radio show “Detroit Today” to discuss their new book, “Curious Mind: The Power of Connection.”
In their book, Basset and Zurn draw on their previous research, as well as an expansive network of ideas from philosophy, history, education and art to explore how and why people experience curiosity, as well as the different types it can take.
Basset, who holds appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, as well as the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn Arts & Science, and the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry in Penn Perelman’s School of Medicine, and Zurn spoke with “Detroit Today” producer Sam Corey about what types of things make people curious, and how to stimulate more curiosity in our everyday lives.
According to the twin experts, curiosity is not a standalone facet of one’s personality. Basset and Zurn’s work has shown that a person’s capacity for inquiry is very much tied to the overall state of their health.
“There’s a lot of scientific research focusing on intellectual humility and also openness to ideas,” says Bassett. “And there are really interesting relationships between someone’s openness to ideas, someone’s intellectual humility and their curiosity and also their wellbeing or flourishing,”
With appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, as well as the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn Arts & Science, and the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry in Penn Perelman’s School of Medicine, Dani S. Bassett is no stranger to following the thread of an idea, no matter where it might lead.
Those wide-ranging fields and disciplines orbit around an appropriate central question: how does the tangle of neurons in our brains wire itself up to learn new things? Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor and director of the Complex Systems Lab, studies the relationship between the shape of those networks of neurons and the brain’s abilities, especially the way the shape of the network grows and changes with the addition of new knowledge.
To get at the fundamentals of the question of curiosity, Bassett needed to draw on even more disciplines. Fortunately, they didn’t have to look far; Bassett’s identical twin is Perry Zurn, a professor of philosophy at American University, and the two have investigated the many different ways a person can exhibit curiosity.
Bassett and Zurn have now published a new book on the subject. In Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, the twins draw on their previous research, as well as an expansive network of ideas from philosophy, history, education and art.
“It wasn’t clear at the beginning of our careers that we would even ever have a chance to write a book together because our areas were so wildly different,” Bassett says – but then, as postgraduates, Zurn was studying the philosophy of curiosity while Bassett was working on the neuroscience of learning. “And so that’s when we started talking. That talking led to seven years of doing research together,” Bassett says. “This book is a culmination of that.”
How exactly do philosophy and neuroscience complement each other? It all starts with the book’s first, and most deceptively simple question: what is curiosity? “Several investigators in science have underscored that perhaps the field isn’t even ready to define curiosity and how it’s different from other cognitive processes,” says Bassett. The ambiguity in the neuroscience literature motivated Bassett to turn to philosophy, “where there are really rich historical definitions and styles and subtypes that we can then put back into neuroscience and ask: ‘Can we see these in the brain?’”
The National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship Program aims to support graduate students, educate the STEM leaders of tomorrow and strengthen the national research infrastructure. The program’s latest series of grants are going toward university programs focused on artificial intelligence and quantum information science and engineering – two areas of high priority in academia, industry and government.
Chinedum Osuji, Eduardo D. Glandt Presidential Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), has received one of these grants to apply data science and machine learning to the field of soft materials. The grant will provide five years of support and a total of $3 million for a new Penn project on Data Driven Soft Materials Research.
Osuji will work with co-PIs Russell Composto, Professor and Howell Family Faculty Fellow in Materials Science and Engineering, Bioengineering, and in CBE, Zahra Fakhraai, Associate Professor of Chemistry in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) with a secondary appointment in CBE, Paris Perdikaris, Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Andrea Liu, Hepburn Professor of Physics and Astronomy in SAS, all of whom will help run the program and provide the connections between the multiple fields of study where its students will train.
These and other affiliated faculty members will work closely with co-PI Kristin Field, who will serve as Program Coordinator and Director of Education.
A study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering details a novel method for imaging the placenta in pregnant patients as well as the results of a pilot clinical study. By combining optical measurements with ultrasound, the findings show how oxygen levels can be monitored noninvasively and provides a new way to generate a better understanding of this complex, crucial organ. This research was the result of a collaboration of the groups of the University of Pennsylvania’s Arjun Yodh and Nadav Schwartz with colleagues from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and was led by postdoc Lin Wang.
Schwartz describes the placenta as the “engine” of pregnancy, an organ that plays a crucial role in delivering nutrients and oxygen to the fetus. Placental dysfunction can lead to complications such as fetal growth restriction, preeclampsia, and stillbirth. To increase knowledge about this crucial organ, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development launched the Human Placenta Project in 2014. One focus of the program is to develop tools to assess human placental structure and function in real time, including optical devices.
For three years, the researchers optimized the design of their instrument and tested it in preclinical settings. The process involved integrating optical fibers with ultrasound probes, exploring various ultrasound transducers, and improving the multimodal technology so that measurements were stable, accurate, and reproducible while collecting data at the bedside. The resulting instrumentation now enables researchers to study the anatomy of the placenta while also collecting detailed functional information about placenta blood flow and oxygenation, capabilities that existing commercially devices do not have, the researchers say.
Because the placenta is located far below the body’s surface, one of the key technical challenges addressed by Wang, a postdoc in Yodh’s lab, was reducing background noise in the opto-electronic system. Light is scattered and absorbed when it travels through thick tissues, Yodh says, and the key for success was to reduce background interference so that the small amount of light that penetrates deep into the placenta and then returns is still large enough for a high-quality measurement.
“We’re sending a light signal that goes through the same deep tissues as the ultrasound. The extremely small amount of light that returns to the surface probe is then used to accurately assess tissue properties, which is only possible with very stable lasers, optics, and detectors,” says Yodh. “Lin had to overcome many barriers to improve the signal-to-noise ratio to the point where we trusted our data.”
The authors are Lin Wang, Jeffrey M. Cochran, Kenneth Abramson, Lian He, Venki Kavuri, Samuel Parry, Arjun G. Yodh, and Nadav Schwartz from Penn; Tiffany Ko, Wesley B. Baker, and Rebecca L. Linn from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and David R. Busch, previously a research associate at Penn and now at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.
During the last few years, CRISPR has grabbed headlines for helping treat patients with conditions as varied as blindness and sickle cell disease. However, long before humans co-opted CRISPR to fight genetic disorders, bacteria were using CRISPR as an immune system to fight off viruses.
In bacteria, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) works by stealing small pieces of DNA from infecting viruses and storing those chunks in the genes of the bacteria. These chunks of DNA, called spacers, are then copied to form little tags, which attach to proteins that float around until they find a matching piece of DNA. When they find a match, they recognize it as a virus and cut it up.
Now, a paper published in Current Biology by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Department of Physics and Astronomy shows that the risk of autoimmunity plays a key role in shaping how CRISPR stores viral information, guiding how many spacers bacteria keep in their genes, and how long those spacers are.
Ideally, spacers should only match DNA belonging to the virus, but there is a small statistical chance that the spacer matches another chunk of DNA in the bacteria itself. That could spell death from an autoimmune response.
“The adaptive immune system in vertebrates can produce autoimmune disorders. They’re very serious and dangerous, but people hadn’t really considered that carefully for bacteria,” says Vijay Balasubramanian, principal investigator for the paper and the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor of Physics in the School of Arts & Sciences.
Balancing this risk can put the bacteria in something of an evolutionary bind. Having more spacers means they can store more information and fend off more types of viruses, but it also increases the likelihood that one of the spacers might match the DNA in the bacteria and trigger an autoimmune response.
Vijay Balasubramanian is the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor of Physics at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Pennsylvania, a visiting professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Vijay Balasubramanian discusses his work as a theoretical physicist, noting his study of the foundations of physics and the fundamentals of space and time. He speaks of the importance of interdisciplinary study and about how literature and the humanities can contextualize scientific exploration in the study of physics, computer science, and neuroscience.
Balasubramanian is Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Penn School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group.
New research published in Nature Physics details the relationship between a disordered material’s individual particle arrangement and how it reacts to external stressors. The study also found that these materials have “memory” that can be used to predict how and when they will flow. The study was led by Larry Galloway, a Ph.D. student in the lab of Paulo Arratia, and Xiaoguang Ma, a former postdoc in the lab of Arjun Yodh, in collaboration with researchers in the labs of Douglas Jerolmack and Celia Reina.
A disordered material is randomly arranged at the particle-scale, e.g. atoms or grains, instead of being systematically distributed—think of a pile of sand instead of a neatly stacked brick wall. Researchers in the Arratia lab are studying this class of materials as part of Penn’s Materials Research Science & Engineering Center, where one of the program’s focuses is on understanding the organization and proliferation of particle-scale rearrangements in disordered, amorphous materials.
The key question in this study was whether one could observe the structure of a disordered material and have some indication as to how stable it is or when it might begin to break apart. This is known as the yield point, or when the material “flows” and begins to move in response to external forces. “For example, if you look at the grains of a sand castle and how they are arranged, can I tell you whether the wind can blow it over or if it has to be hit hard to fall over?” says Arratia. “We want to know, just by looking at the way the particles are arranged, if we can say anything about the way they’re going to flow or if they are going to flow at all.”
While it has been known that individual particle distribution influences yield point, or flow, in disordered materials, it has been challenging to study this phenomenon since the field lacks ways to “quantify” disorder in such materials. To address this challenge, the researchers collaborated with colleagues from across campus to combine expertise across the fields of experimentation, theory, and simulations.
The authors are Larry Galloway, Erin Teich, Christoph Kammer, Ian Graham, Celia Reina, Douglas Jerolmack, Arjun Yodh, and Paulo Arratia from Penn; Xiaoguang Ma, previously a postdoc at Penn and now at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China; and Nathan Keim, previously a postdoc at Penn and now at Pennsylvania State University.
The human brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body, requiring as much as 20% of the body’s total energy. While this may sound like a lot, the amount of energy would be even higher if the brain were not equipped with an efficient way to represent only the most essential information within the vast, constant stream of stimuli taken in by the five senses. The hypothesis for how this works, known as efficient coding, was first proposed in the 1960s by vision scientist Horace Barlow.
Now, new research from the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (SISSA) and the University of Pennsylvania provides evidence of efficient visual information coding in the rodent brain, adding support to this theory and its role in sensory perception. Published in eLife, these results also pave the way for experiments that can help understand how the brain works and can aid in developing novel artificial intelligence (AI) systems based on similar principles.
According to information theory—the study of how information is quantified, stored, and communicated—an efficient sensory system should only allocate resources to how it represents, or encodes, the features of the environment that are the most informative. For visual information, this means encoding only the most useful features that our eyes detect while surveying the world around us.
Vijay Balasubramanian, a computational neuroscientist at Penn, has been working on this topic for the past decade. “We analyzed thousands of images of natural landscapes by transforming them into binary images, made up of black and white pixels, and decomposing them into different textures defined by specific statistics,” he says. “We noticed that different kinds of textures have different variability in nature, and human subjects are better at recognizing those which vary the most. It is as if our brains assign resources where they are most necessary.”
A study published in PLOS Computational Biology describes a new model for how the olfactory system discerns unique odors. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that a simplified, statistics-based model can explain how individual odors can be perceived as more or less similar from others depending on the context. This model provides a starting point for generating new hypotheses and conducting experiments that can help researchers better understand the olfactory system, a complex, crucial part of the brain.
The sense of smell, while crucial for things like taste and hazard avoidance, is not as well studied as other senses. Study co-author Vijay Balasubramanian, a theoretical physicist with an interest in how living systems process information, says that olfaction is a prime example of a complex information-processing system found in nature, as there are far more types of volatile molecules—on the scale of tens or hundreds of thousands—than there are receptor types in the nose to detect them, on the scale of tens to hundreds depending on the species.
“Every molecule can bind to many receptors, and every receptor can bind to many molecules, so you get this combinatorial mishmash, with the nose encoding smells in a way that involves many receptor types to collectively tell you what a smell is,” says Balasubramanian. “And because there are many fewer receptor types than molecular species, you basically have to compress a very high dimensional olfactory space into a much lower dimensional space of neural responses.”
The prestigious APS Fellowship Program signifies recognition by one’s professional peers. Each year, no more than one half of one percent of the APS membership is recognized with this distinct honor. Bassett’s election and groundbreaking work in biological physics and network science will be recognized through presentation of a certificate at the APS March Meeting.
Bassett is a pioneer in the field of network neuroscience, an emerging subfield which incorporates elements of mathematics, physics, biology and systems engineering to better understand how the overall shape of connections between individual neurons influences cognitive traits. They lead the Complex Systems lab which tackles problems at the intersection of science, engineering, and medicine using systems-level approaches, exploring fields such as curiosity, dynamic networks in neuroscience, and psychiatric disease.
Bassett recently collaborated with Penn artist-in-residence Rebecca Kamen and other scholars on an interdisciplinary art exhibit on the creative process in art and science at the Katzen Art Center at American University. They have also published research modeling different types of curiosity and exploring gender-based citation bias in neuroscience publishing.
“I’m thrilled and humbled to receive this honor from the American Physical Society,” says Bassett. “I am indebted to the many fantastic mentees, colleagues, and mentors that have made my time in science such an exciting adventure. Thank you.”