‘Curious Minds: The Power of Connection’

Twin siblings and scholars Dani S. Bassett of Penn and Perry Zurn of American University collaborated over half a dozen years to write “Curious Minds: The Power of Connection.” (Image: Tony and Tracy Wood Photography)

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.

Curious Minds book cover

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.

In an interview with The Guardian, Bassett explains how these threads wove together:

“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?’”

Curious Minds: The Power of Connection is available now. Read Amelia Tait’s review “Are you a busybody, a hunter or a dancer? A new book about curiosity reveals all,” in The Guardian. 

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

“This is What a Data Scientist Looks Like”

Speakers at the second annual Women in Data Science @ Penn Conference.

Last month, the second annual Women in Data Science (WiDS) @ Penn Conference virtually gathered nearly 500 registrants to participate in a week’s worth of academic and industry talks, live speaker Q&A sessions, and networking opportunities.

Hosted by Penn Engineering, Analytics at WhartonWharton Customer Analytics and Wharton’s Statistics Department, the conference’s theme — “This is What a Data Scientist Looks Like” – emphasized the depth, breadth, and diversity of data science, both in terms of the subjects the field covers and the people who enter it.

Following welcoming remarks from Erika James, Dean of the Wharton School, and Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering, the conference began with a keynote address from President of Microsoft US and Wharton alumna Kate Johnson.

Conference sessions continued throughout the week, featuring panels of academic data scientists from around Penn and beyond, industry leaders from IKEA Digital, Facebook and Poshmark, and lightning talks from students speakers who presented their data science research.

All of the conference’s sessions are now available on YouTube and the 2021 WiDS Conference Recap, including a talk titled “How Humans Build Models for the World” by Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering.

Read more about the conference at Wharton Stories: “How Women in Data Science Rise to the Top.

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.

BE Seminar: “Patients, Providers and Data: How the EMR and Data Science are Changing Clinical Care” (Kevin Johnson, Vanderbilt)

The Penn Bioengineering virtual seminar series continues on September 24th.

Kevin Johnson, MD, MS

Speaker: Kevin Johnson, M.D., M.S.
Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and Chair
Department of Biomedical Informatics
Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Date: Thursday, September 24, 2020
Time: 3:00-4:00 pm
Zoom – check email for link or contact ksas@seas.upenn.edu

Title: “Patients, Providers and Data: How the EMR and Data Science are Changing Clinical Care”

Abstract:

The electronic health record (EHR) is a powerful application of Systems Engineering to healthcare. It is a byproduct of a host of pressures including cost, consolidation of providers into networks, uniform drivers of quality, and the need for timely care across disparate socioeconomic and geographic landscapes within health systems. The EHR is also a fulcrum for innovation and one of the most tangible examples of how data science affects our health and health care. In this talk I will showcase projects from my lab that demonstrate the multi-disciplinary nature of biomedical informatics/data science research and translation using the EHR, and our current understanding of its potential from my perspective as a pediatrician, a researcher in biomedical informatics, a Chief Information Officer, an educator, and an advisor to local and international policy. I will describe advances in applying human factors engineering to support medical documentation and generic prescribing, approaches to improve medication safety, and innovations to support precision medicine and interoperability. I will present our efforts to integrate EHR-enabled data science into the Vanderbilt health system and provide a vision for what this could mean for our future.

Bio:

Kevin B. Johnson, M.D., M.S. is Informatician-in-Chief, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and Chair of Biomedical Informatics, and Professor Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He received his M.D. from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and his M.S. in Medical Informatics from Stanford University. In 1992 he returned to Johns Hopkins where he served as a Pediatric Chief Resident. He was a member of the faculty in both Pediatrics and Biomedical Information Sciences at Johns Hopkins until 2002, when he was recruited to Vanderbilt University. He also is a Board-Certified Pediatrician.

Dr. Johnson is an internationally respected developer and evaluator of clinical information technology. His research interests have been related to developing and encouraging the adoption of clinical information systems to improve patient safety and compliance with practice guidelines; the uses of advanced computer technologies, including the Worldwide Web, personal digital assistants, and pen-based computers in medicine; and the development of computer-based documentation systems for the point of care. In the early phases of his career, he directed the development and evaluation of evidence-based pediatric care guidelines for the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He has been principal investigator on numerous grants and has been an invited speaker at most major medical informatics and pediatrics conferences. He also was the Chief Informatics Officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center from 2015-2019.

See the full list of upcoming Penn Bioengineering fall seminars here.

Dr. Danielle Bassett and Dr. Jason Burdick Named to Highly Cited Researchers List

by Sophie Burkholder

One way to measure the success or influence of a researcher is to consider how many times they’re cited by other researchers. Every published paper requires a reference section listing relevant earlier papers, and the Web of Science Group keeps track of how many times different authors are cited over the course of a year.

Danielle Bassett, Ph.D.

In 2019, two members of the Penn Bioengineering department, Jason Burdick, Ph.D., and Danielle Bassett, Ph.D., were named Highly Cited Researchers, indicating that each of them placed within the top 1% of citations in their field based on the Web of Science’s index. For the past year, only 6,300 researchers were recognized with this honor, a number that makes up a mere 0.1% of researchers worldwide. Bassett’s lab looks at the use of knowledge, brain, and dynamic networks to understand bioengineering problems at a systems-level analysis, while Burdick’s lab focuses on advancements in tissue engineering through polymer design and development.

Robert D. Bent Chair
Jason Burdick, PhD

Burdick’s and Bassett’s naming to the list of Highly Cited Researchers demonstrates that their research had an outsized influence over current work in the field of bioengineering in the last year, and that new innovations continue to be developed from foundations these two Penn researchers created. To be included among such a small percentage of researchers worldwide indicates that Bassett and Burdick are sources of great impact and influence in bioengineering advancements today.

Brain Network Control Emerges over Childhood and Adolescence

network control

 

The developing human brain contains a cacophony of electrical and chemical signals from which emerge the powerful adult capacities for decision-making, strategizing, and critical thinking. These signals support the trafficking of information across brain regions, in patterns that share many similarities with traffic patterns in railway and airline transportation systems. Yet while air traffic is guided by airport control towers, and railway routes are guided by signal control rooms, it remains a mystery how the information traffic in the brain is guided and how that guidance changes as kids grow.

In part, this mystery has been complicated by the fact that, unlike transportation systems, the brain is not hooked up to external controllers. Control must happen internally. The problem becomes even more complicated when we think about the sheer number of routes that must exist in the brain to support the full range of human cognitive capabilities. Thus, the controllers would need to produce a large set of control signals or use different control strategies. Where internal controllers might be, how they produce large variations in routing, and whether those controllers and their function change with age are important open questions.

A recent paper published in Nature Communications – a product of collaboration among the Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical & Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and the Department of Psychiatry of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine – offers some interesting answers. In their article, Danielle Bassett, Ph.D., Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the Penn BE Department, Theodore D. Satterthwaite, M.D., Assistant Professor in the Penn Psychiatry Department, postdoctoral fellow Evelyn Tang, and their colleagues suggest that control in the human brain works in a similar way to control in man-made robotic and other mechanical systems. Specifically, controllers exist inside each human brain, each region of the brain can perform multiple types of control, and this control grows as children grow.

As part of this study, the authors applied network control theory — an emerging area of systems engineering – to explain how the pattern of connections (or network) between brain areas directly informs the brain’s control functions. For example, hubs of the brain’s information trafficking system (like Grand Central Station in New York City) show quite different capacities for and sensitivities to control than non-hubs (like Newton Station, Kansas). Applying these ideas to a large set of brain imaging data from 882 youths in the Philadelphia area between the ages of 8 and 22 years old, the authors found that the brain’s predicted capacity for control increases over development. Older youths have a greater predicted capacity to push their brains into nearby mental states, as well as into distant mental states, indicating a greater potential for diversity of mental operations than in younger youths.

The investigators then asked whether the principles of network control could explain the specific manner in which connections in the brain change as youths age. They used tools from evolutionary game theory – traditionally used to study Darwinian competition and evolving populations in biology – to ‘evolve’ brain networks in silico from their 8-year old state to their 22-year-old state. The results demonstrated that the optimization of network control is a principle that explains the observed changes in brain connectivity as youths develop over childhood and adolescence. “One of the observations that I think is particularly striking about this study,” Bassett says, “is that the principles of network controllability are sufficient to explain the observed evolution in development, suggesting that we have identified a quintessential rule of developmental rewiring.”

This research informs many possible future directions in scientific research. “Showing that network control properties evolve during adolescence also suggests that abnormalities of this developmental process could be related to cognitive deficits that are present in many neuropsychiatric disorders,” says Satterthwaite. The discovery that the brain optimizes certain network control functions over time could have important implications for better understanding of neuroplasticity, skill acquisition, and developmental psychopathology.