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University of Chicago

University of Chicago

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The University of Chicago (U of C, UChicago, or Chicago) is an academic powerhouse par excellence. The University was founded with a donation from oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller and incorporated in 1890. William Rainey Harper became the university's first president, in 1891, and the first classes were held in 1892. As a private research university, UChicago consists of the College, various graduate programs and interdisciplinary committees organized into four divisions, six professional schools, and a school of continuing education. The University enrolls approximately 5,000 students in the College and about 15,000 students overall.

UChicago espouses a research-heavy ethos. For example, in 2008, the University received (largely from the federal government) and spent $423.7 million on scientific research. University of Chicago scholars have played a role in the development of various academic disciplines, including: the Chicago school of economics, the Chicago school of sociology, the law and economics movement in legal analysis, the Chicago school of literary criticism, the Chicago school of religion, the school of political science known as behavioralism, and in the physics leading to the world's first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction. The University is also home to the University of Chicago Press, the largest university press in the United States.

Many great minds have been part of the University of Chicago community. The University is affiliated with 87 Nobel Laureates, 49 Rhodes Scholars and 9 Fields Medalists.

Honors: An Intellectual Powerhouse

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Jeffrey Hubbell, the Eugene Bell Professor in Tissue Engineering at the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, was elected to the National Academy of Medicine. Election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service.

Hubbell, who is also an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, was selected for his work “pioneering the development of cell responsive (bioactive) materials and inventing biomaterials that are now widely utilized in regenerative medicine.”

The professor said he’s “honored to be elected to this prestigious organizations and to have my lab’s work recognized by my peers.”

Hubbell’s research has led to tools and treatments, including nanoparticle vaccines and drug delivery systems, that combat diseases ranging from influenza and type-1 diabetes to tuberculosis and cancer. An entrepreneur, he has co-founded five companies, three of which are based on or related to research he directs at the University of Chicago. His companies create surgical sealants and tissue repair agents, and develop technologies to increase immunotolerance. Along with his associates, he holds 77 patents.

Hubbell joins a cohort of 75 regular and 10 international members elected during the academy’s annual meeting, which was held on Oct. 15 this year.

“As both a pioneering researcher and an early entrepreneur in the field of tissue engineering, Jeff has earned his spot in the academy,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean and founding Pritzker director of IME. “His work has led to advances in treatments for a wide range of diseases—and has positively impacted many lives.”

Wed, 31 Dec 1969

Kevin Boyd, an experienced leader in information technology at universities and corporations, has been appointed associate vice president and chief information officer for the University of Chicago.

Boyd has served as the executive director and chief information officer for University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business for the last six years. He has been interim chief information officer for the University since August, and prior to that he was deputy chief information officer for the University.

“Kevin is an important addition to our team, bringing a deep understanding of the information technology landscape and strong experience in higher education. His leadership will be critical, not just to keep the University on the forefront of technology, but to reduce potential technology-related risks across campus,” said Ivan Samstein, vice president and chief financial officer at the University.

Boyd will lead all aspects of Information Technology Services, including enhancing service delivery and reducing risk in information technology campus-wide. He will focus on developing a shared vision and strategy for IT service delivery and provide leadership in implementing that vision and strategy within the central IT organization and with campus IT partners.

“I look forward to working with colleagues and partners around campus to advance technology—from research labs and classrooms to university-wide systems,” Boyd said.

Boyd’s background includes leading infrastructure teams, project management, quality assurance and e-commerce. Prior to joining Chicago Booth, he served in technology roles at Tribune Company, CNA Financial and United Airlines. Boyd holds a master’s degree in communication systems, strategy and management from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in broadcast and electronic communication from Marquette University.

Wed, 31 Dec 1969

To Prof. Christopher Kennedy, words matter. So in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the University of Chicago linguist has been disturbed to see terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” enter the popular discourse.

Kennedy saw this shift not only as a threat to democracy, but as a dangerous reconfiguration of how we understand truth.

“The question was: ‘What can I do? What role do I play in thinking about that?’” Kennedy said. “If you’re someone who studies meaning, then maybe talking about the role that truth plays in meaning and communication will help other people think about this stuff in a richer way.”

Kennedy, the William H. Colvin Professor of Linguistics, will explore the nature of truth—how it is built into the ways we communicate, and how those processes create sets of shared beliefs—during his keynote address during UChicago’s annual Humanities Day on Oct. 20. The speech, which will begin at 11 a.m. in Mandel Hall, is one of 40 presentations on Saturday showcasing the richness and variety of scholarship from UChicago’s Division of the Humanities.

Of particular interest to Kennedy is the way that social media has become a megaphone for distortions or outright lies.

“It’s not like people started lying and BS-ing in 2016,” Kennedy said. “I would be shocked if that hasn’t been going on as long as people have been talking. But what are the differences now? That’s one of them.”

Founded in 1980, Humanities Day is a free annual event filled with dozens of discussions, performances, and lectures from faculty and students. Visitors can delve into alternate reality gaming, explore the South Side Movie Project’s digital archive or tour a new exhibit at the Logan Center.

For Kennedy, the day represents another opportunity to discuss language and discourse—topics he has thought about for years. Once a bass player in an Austin-based rock band, his career trajectory changed when he read a library copy of Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. The book helped Kennedy realize that his interest in Russian, which he studied as an undergrad at Dartmouth University, was rooted in a fascination with how language functioned.

Nearly two years ago, Kennedy decided to launch a new class called “Truth” to address the way President Donald Trump’s ambivalence toward facts stoked political polarization. While he acknowledged the difficulty of finding objective “truth,” Kennedy hopes that his efforts can prompt students—and the broader public—to think more deeply about conversational conventions and the way they shape meaning.

“It’s not up to me to tell people what sense to make out of all of this,” Kennedy said. “It’s more about giving them, hopefully, ways of thinking about these issues that they haven’t considered before.”

Here is a selection of other presentations at Humanities Day 2018:

  • Transforming First-Year Orientation Through Alternate Reality Gaming9:30 a.m., Logan Center Penthouse — Assoc. Profs. Patrick Jagoda and Kristen Schilt discuss the parasite, the alternate reality game they created to immerse first-year UChicago students in a more dynamic orientation experience.
  • Putin’s Puppets: 9:30 a.m., Kent Chemical Laboratory, Room 120 — Assoc. Prof. William Nickell, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, will examine how Vladimir Putin seized control of his image after being caricatured on the weekly Russian television show “Puppets.”
  • New Faculty Books in Creative Writing3:30 p.m., Seminary Co-op Bookstore — Asst. Profs. Rachel Galvin, Will Boast and Ling Ma will read from their respective new releases: Elevated Threat Level, a poetry collection from Galvin that explores American comfort and its ties to war and exploitation; Daphne, Boast’s modern-day reinterpretation of Ovid’s myth; and Severance, Ma’s post-apocalyptic satire. Director of Creative Writing John Wilkinson will moderate the panel.
  • Animal Cognition in Antiquity3:30 p.m., Stuart Hall, Room 101 — Graduate students Amber Ace, Jordan Johansen and Rik Peters will hold a panel on how ancient Greek authors voiced their fascination with animal behavior, something that still enchants modern audiences in the form of Pixar films and viral cat videos.
Wed, 31 Dec 1969

The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago announced the launch of the Alumni New Venture Challenge (ANVC), a new track of its nationally-ranked Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge startup accelerator program. The ANVC is a new global program dedicated to supporting all University of Chicago alumni who are in the process of launching and developing their startup ventures.

Since 1996, the Polsky Center has helped launch more than 230 startup companies still in operation today that have gone on to raise more than $915 million in funding and more than $13 billion in exits through its NVC program. Grubhub, Braintree/Venmo and Simple Mills are examples of three national brands that got their successful start through the NVC.

“We run the top university accelerator program in the country,” said Steve Kaplan, the Neubauer Family Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and faculty director of the Polsky Center who is responsible for creating the NVC more than 20 years ago. “We spent the past two decades perfecting a model that enables our students to take their early-stage ideas and turn them into viable businesses. Now it is time for us to bring that same success to help support our alumni around the world.”

Continued expansion

The ANVC will be the fifth track of the NVC program. Other existing tracks include the traditional NVC—the original track—which is open to all current UChicago graduate students; the Social NVC, which the Polsky Center runs in partnership with the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at Chicago Booth and is open to all current UChicago graduate students working on either for-profit or not-for-profit enterprises with a social impact mission; the Global NVC, which is designed for current Booth Executive MBA students in Chicago, Hong Kong and London; and the College NVC, which is open to all current UChicago undergraduate students.

“We often see our students graduate from the University and jump right into great careers in consulting, public policy or a variety of other industries. These alumni then use this experience to start their own companies 5-10 years out,” said Starr Marcello, AM’04, MBA’17, executive director of the Polsky Center and adjunct assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Booth who teaches the College NVC class. “The Alumni NVC will give these alumni access to critical resources that can help them determine the viability of their new venture ideas. We expect the Alumni NVC to help launch a new cohort of real, scalable businesses.”

Global reach

In this inaugural year, the Polsky Center will launch and operate the ANVC track in five key regions: East Coast, Midwest, West Coast, Europe and Asia. University alumni have been recruited by the Polsky Center to volunteer their time and serve as dedicated co-chairs to oversee all local programming in each region.

The East Coast programming will operate out of New York City, Midwest programing will operate out of Chicago, West Coast programming will operate out of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Europe programming will operate out of London and the Asia programming will operate out of Bangalore, India. Future iterations of the ANVC will likely include additional regions outside of these initial five.

Supported by alumni

The ability to have strong alumni leadership in each region is critical to the ANVC’s global model. Thus, the Polsky Center handpicked several alumni who have first-hand experience participating in the NVC as well as those with strong ties to the venture and startup community.

“The NVC was instrumental in getting my first company off the ground and supporting me to become a successful entrepreneur,” said Michael Farb, MBA ’09, cofounder of CaptainU, an online platform that connects high school athletes with college coaches, which won first place in the NVC in 2008 and was acquired by Blue Star Sports in 2016. Farb will serve as one of the co-chairs in the West Coast region.

Coco Meers, MBA’14, cofounder of the online beauty booking platform PrettyQuick that was acquired by Groupon in 2015, is one of the alums spearheading the ANVC in the Midwest region. She immediately recognized the value that a new track of the NVC could bring. “PrettyQuick's trajectory was vastly improved by the NVC experience,” described Meers. “Why limit that transformation to current students? We have such a rich ecosystem for innovation all across the University, which is captured in our alumni community at large. I'm excited to bring the resources of the NVC to other alumni founders.”

Another NVC alum, Vikram Vuppala, MBA’07, was selected as one of the co-chairs to oversee the ANVC programming for all of Asia. “The NVC is one of the reasons I could raise three rounds of private equity amounting to $30 million at NephroPlus,” explained Vuppala. “I want to be involved in helping other alumni entrepreneurs launch their companies and this is a small way that I can give back to this community.” NephroPlus placed second in the NVC in 2007 and is now India's largest dialysis service and kidney care provider.

Milestone-driven structure

The ANVC will follow a similar milestone-driven structure that is found in all tracks of existing New Venture Challenge programming. Participation in the program will be the result of a competitive application process where only the most promising ventures will be selected.

Once a startup is accepted into the ANVC, the Polsky Center will partner closely with the co-chairs serving as each region’s leadership to offer customized support, resources, and programming for each participant. Educational content and support will be delivered through a combination of face-to-face and technology-enabled interactions.

Semifinals competitions will be organized and hosted in each region where all teams will present their businesses to a panel of distinguished judges and venture capitalists. Only the top teams from each region will then be invited to participate in the ANVC global finals, which will be held in Chicago on May 2, 2019 on the eve of Booth’s Alumni Reconnect Weekend and during UChicago Innovation Fest 2019.

“The reunion weekend will be a great way for the program to benefit from the alumni returning to campus,” said Ellen Rudnick, MBA’73, senior advisor on entrepreneurship, adjunct professor at Booth, and cofounder of the NVC program. “The reunion and the alumni NVC is a great opportunity to reconnect with our alumni and celebrate the NVC’s long history.”

Eligibility and application process

All alumni of the University of Chicago are eligible to apply to the ANVC. And although alumni can only apply to one geographic region, their business does not need to operate in that region in order to be eligible to participate.

The Polsky Center is hosting a series of webinars held in multiple time zones on Thursday, Nov. 8 for University alumni interested in learning more about the ANVC program. Information about eligibility requirements, how to apply to the program and what constitutes a strong application will be shared during this kickoff session.

To register, please visit the ANVC Kickoff online registration page.

Wed, 31 Dec 1969

David Ferguson quickly learned the value of UChicagoGRAD’s annual GRADFair.

As a graduate student, he attended the unique cross-disciplinary career fair searching for job opportunities, and within months of meeting with recruiters, he accepted a position with the search firm Isaacson, Miller in its Boston office.

“Two of the associates from the firm who attended GRADFair also have PhDs, and they were able to talk about their experiences in a very compelling way, showing me how I could take some of the skills I’d learned during a long graduate career and provide value to the firm,” said Ferguson, PhD’17, who returned to GRADFair last year as an employer representing Isaacson, Miller. “It was a great opportunity to hear their stories in person and listen to the pitch from people who eventually became my colleagues.”

This year’s fourth annual GRADFair on Oct. 18 will feature nearly 50 companies representing various industries that are interested in recruiting UChicago graduate students and postdocs. Last year, more than 600 UChicago students and postdocs participated in the event, and UChicagoGRAD expects an even bigger turnout this year.

“GRADFair began as a way to highlight for employers the wide range of skills that come from graduate training,” said Michael A. Tessel, senior director of graduate career development and employer relations at UChicagoGRAD. “The event is a great opportunity for recruiters from academia, industry, nonprofit and government to connect with students from all disciplines at a single event. Over the last three years, GRADFair has grown in size and popularity to become our largest career event of the year.”

A unique aspect of the event is dedicated time for faculty to meet with and learn about what employers are looking for in graduate student candidates. It also allows faculty to answer employers’ questions about graduate education and the important role faculty can play in diverse career preparation for graduate students.

“We believe that connecting two distinct groups that are invested in graduate education but rarely speak to each other—faculty and employers—provides a much-needed service to everyone depending on the next generation of highly educated professionals,” Tessel said.

Ferguson thinks GRADFair is extremely valuable for employers as well as students, and he credits UChicagoGRAD for helping him identify career options outside the academy.

“It’s an opportunity for employers to have access to some of the nation’s brightest minds and most critical thinkers,” he said. “It’s also so important to prepare students, even those at the doctoral level, for how to serve the world in a great many capacities, not just in the academic space. That’s exactly what GRADFair accomplishes.”

Learn more about the upcoming GRADFair and register to attend by visiting the UChicagoGRAD website.

Wed, 31 Dec 1969

A team of researchers at the University of Chicago has received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The funding will help the team develop robotic arms patients can control with their minds that receive sensory feedback from attached prosthetic hands.

The new grant is part of a combined $7 million awarded to UChicago, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to continue their collaboration developing prosthetics with a brain-computer interface for paralyzed patients. In 2016, the team demonstrated how a clinical trial participant was able to control a robotic arm with his mind and regain the sense of touch through its hand.

The new grant will expand the clinical trial to UChicago, where the project will be led by Assoc. Prof. Sliman Bensmaia, who studies the sense of touch, and Prof. Nicholas Hatsopoulos, who researches how the brain directs movement in the limbs. John Downey, a staff scientist in Bensmaia’s lab who formerly worked with the Pitt team, will coordinate research activities. Neurosurgeon Peter Warnke will perform surgical procedures to implant the devices, and Raymond Lee, a physical rehabilitation specialist from Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago, will recruit subjects and provide guidance on the patient population involved.

“Our goal is to create a prosthesis that has the same dexterity and functionality as the natural human hand,” said Bensmaia, associate professor in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy. “UChicago has the benefit of years of experience with both motor neuroscience and somatosensory research, and we look forward to continuing that work with our partners at Pitt and UPMC.”

The research team at Pitt and UPMC is led by Michael Boninger and includes Jennifer Collinger, Robert Gaunt, and Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara. That team has worked with two Pittsburgh-area clinical trial participants since 2012, both of whom had paralysis of their arms and hands. The new project will recruit two more such patients at each site.

The robotic neuroprosthetic system works by implanting arrays of electrodes in areas of the brain that control movement and process the sense of touch from a natural limb. The electrodes pick up activity in neurons as the patient thinks about moving their own arm to direct the robotic arm to move accordingly. The prosthetic hand is fitted with sensors to detect sensations of touch, such as pressing on individual fingertips, which in turn generates electrical signals that stimulate the appropriate areas of the brain.

The prosthetics will incorporate years of research by Bensmaia and Hatsopoulos on how the nervous system interprets sensory feedback, directs limbs to move and perceives them in space. Bensmaia’s lab has developed software algorithms to recreate the sense of touch with the BCI using a “biomimetic” approach that mimics the way someone's natural nervous system would communicate signals from the hand to the brain. Hatsopoulos studies motor control and how brain cells work together to coordinate and learn complex movements of the arm and hand.

“BCI control in the past has focused on moving the limb in free space. Our project will attempt to solve the difficult challenge of controlling the hand when it comes in contact with and manipulates objects,” said Hatsopoulos, professor in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy.

The research team at UChicago will continue to refine the previous work with their partners in Pittsburgh to incorporate greater dexterity and more precise movements into the prosthetics.

“Having a human patient lets us do all kinds of things we couldn’t do before,” Bensmaia said. “You can probe the quality of sensations being invoked by asking them what they feel. You can sculpt movements to make more natural and precise. This opens a new world for us here at the University of Chicago.”

—Article originally appeared on Science Life

Wed, 31 Dec 1969

How our bodies handle glucose—the simple sugar that provides energy from the food we eat—appears to be intertwined with how cells keep themselves functioning normally, according to new University of Chicago research.

The study, published with Scripps Research Institute scientists on Oct. 15 in Nature, found a link between the process that handles glucose in cells and the one that regulates detoxification. This suggests a new understanding of a fundamental function in our bodies, and one that may provide new insights into disorders from cancer to diabetes.

Raymond Moellering, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at UChicago, was trying to tease out the role of a particular molecule involved in the pathway that triggers a cell’s detoxification process—a sort of cleaning crew to remove toxins and buildups when something goes awry in the cell. This pathway turns up when you study all sorts of ailments: cancer, diabetes, inflammatory diseases and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

It appeared that the key protein to trigger this pathway, KEAP1, was being activated by a new small molecule discovered in the lab—but it didn’t appear to be using any of the normal mechanisms known to scientists.

By tracking down the pathways being affected by this molecule, Moellering’s team found that it involved another pathway besides detoxification: the pathway that the body uses to process glucose. “Nobody knew those were directly connected,” Moellering said.

How our bodies deal with glucose, which is produced when we break down food for energy, is crucial to virtually all life around the globe—and thus important in many diseases, such as diabetes. Because it’s so ancient and fundamental, it’s also a really difficult pathway to manipulate in the lab. “Unlike a lot of genes or pathways in human cells, you can’t just shut off processes involved in glucose metabolism to see how it connects to other pathways, because if you do the cell dies and the connections are lost,” Moellering said.

Luckily, difficult biological problems are Moellering’s specialty. In most of the techniques for studying biology, scientists can only glimpse snapshots of cell activity—like trying to understand the plot of The Matrix based on a couple of frames out of the entire movie. Moellering’s lab tries to remedy that by developing technology to measure activity and interactions in live cells as it’s happening.

Using a combination of techniques, they found that KEAP1 is actually triggered to action by a buildup of glucose in the cell. “It looks very clearly like KEAP1 is listening to glucose metabolism, and turning on detox mechanisms as a result,” Moellering said.

The strange part was how this happens. Researchers showed that when KEAP1 is exposed to a molecule that is produced during the breakdown of glucose, individual KEAP1 proteins join up in pairs, which then triggers a waterfall of other signals in the cell to begin detoxification mechanisms. Previous methods could not detect how these molecules, proteins and pathways were interacting within the cell.

Opening new pathways

The discovery is exciting on several levels, Moellering said. This particular pathway is a clue to understanding all kinds of disorders, because detoxification is such an important role in the cell. There’s also a great deal researchers don’t know about glucose, such as how exactly changes in glucose metabolism contribute to complications in diseases, such as nerve damage that accompanies diabetes.

Additionally, the work shows that the cell protects itself from damage by triggering detoxification via glucose metabolism, but pushing this signal too far—as may happen in diseases like diabetes—could lead to damage that exceeds the capacity of the clean-up crew. “For many diseases involving glucose metabolism, it’s intriguing to now ask whether this pathway is involved,” Moellering said.

On another level, this discovery appears to establish a new category of how proteins are controlled in the body. In their quest to understand what happens every day in human cells, scientists know two major ways for proteins to go about their business. One way is for enzymes to place chemical marks on proteins, turning them off and on. The other way is for free-floating molecules in the cell to reversibly interact with proteins to control their functions. This study appears to establish a third way, which is a hybrid of the two—where these free-floating molecules directly form chemical marks on the proteins they interact with, causing specific and longer-lived effects. “Finding this kind of regulation with KEAP1 suggests it is a widespread way to control protein function,” Moellering said.

The discovery suggests new therapeutic possibilities. Pharmaceutical companies are very interested in how to activate and deactivate KEAP1, because it’s key to so many disorders. Previous attempts focused on targeting KEAP1 itself have run into challenges in clinical trials; this new understanding of how metabolism integrates into the pathway may suggest a new mechanism to accomplish the same effect, Moellering said.

The study’s lead authors were Gihoon Lee with UChicago and Michael Bollong from Scripps. Other UChicago co-authors were John Coukos and Jae Won Chang.

Citation: “A metabolite-derived protein modification integrates glycolysis with KEAP1-NRF2 signalling.” Bollong et al, Nature, Oct. 15, 2018. doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0622-0

Funding: National Institutes of Health, V Foundation for Cancer Research, Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology, Kwanjeong Educational Fellowships, Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, University of Chicago.

Wed, 31 Dec 1969

Trustee Emeritus John H. Bryan Jr., former chairman and chief executive of Sara Lee Corp. and a revered civic leader in Chicago, died Oct. 1. He was 81 years old.

Bryan was elected to the University of Chicago Board of Trustees in 1986. In 2006, he was elected a Life Trustee and was named Trustee Emeritus in 2007.

Bryan was born and grew up in Mississippi, becoming involved with his family’s specialty meat business after receiving a bachelor’s degree from Southwestern at Memphis, which is now Rhodes College. His family’s company was acquired in the late 1960s by Consolidated Foods Corp., which went on to become Sara Lee Corp. Bryan was named chief executive officer of Consolidated Foods in 1975 and became chairman the following year, transforming the company over the next three decades.

In Chicago, Bryan played a prominent role as a civic leader, particularly in the arts and the development of the city’s Millennium Park. An avid art collector, Bryan served as chairman of the board of trustees of The Art Institute of Chicago and led a fundraising campaign to renovate Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and Lyric Opera House. Bryan was chairman of Millennium Park, Inc., serving as a critical leader in the development of what would become a Chicago landmark.

Bryan, who retired from Sara Lee in 2001, served as a member of the board of directors of General Motors Corp, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and BP. He was a life trustee of Rush Medical Center and a member of numerous civic boards and clubs over his career.

Bryan is survived by his wife of 60 years, Neville; two sons, John and Charles; two daughters, Margaret Bryan French and Elizabeth Bryan Seebeck; 13 grandchildren; one great-grandson; a brother, George; and a sister, Caroline Harrell.

A memorial service will be held Nov. 3 at 2 p.m. at the Rubloff Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by a reception on the stage at the Pritzker Pavilion. In keeping with UChicago Board tradition, a memorial resolution in honor of Bryan will be presented at the Board meeting in November.

Wed, 31 Dec 1969

Behind most of today’s artificial intelligence technologies, from self-driving cars to facial recognition and virtual assistants, lie artificial neural networks. Though based loosely on the way neurons communicate in the brain, these “deep learning” systems remain incapable of many basic functions that would be essential for primates and other organisms.

However, a new study from University of Chicago neuroscientists found that adapting a well-known brain mechanism can dramatically improve the ability of artificial neural networks to learn multiple tasks and avoid the persistent AI challenge of “catastrophic forgetting.” The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides a unique example of how neuroscience research can inform new computer science strategies, and, conversely, how AI technology can help scientists better understand the human brain.

When combined with previously reported methods for stabilizing synaptic connections in artificial neural networks, the new algorithm allowed single artificial neural networks to learn and perform hundreds of tasks with only minimal loss of accuracy, potentially enabling more powerful and efficient AI technologies.

“Intuitively, you might think the more tasks you want a network to know, the bigger the network might have to be,” said David Freedman, professor of neurobiology at UChicago. “But the brain suggests there's probably some efficient way of packing in lots of knowledge into a fairly small network. When you look at parts of the brain involved in higher cognitive functions, you tend to find that the same areas, even the same cells, participate in many different functions. The idea was to draw inspiration from what the brain does in order to solve challenges with neural networks.”

In artificial neural networks, “catastrophic forgetting” refers to the difficulty in teaching the system to perform new skills without losing previously learned functions. For example, if a network initially trained to distinguish between photos of dogs and cats is then re-trained to distinguish between dogs and horses, it will lose its earlier ability.

“If you show a trained neural network a new task, it will forget about its previous task completely,” said Gregory Grant, AB’18, who is now a researcher in the Freedman lab. “It says, ‘I don't need that information,’ and overwrites it. That's catastrophic forgetting. It happens very quickly; within just a couple of iterations, your previous task could be utterly obliterated.”

By contrast, the brain is capable of “continual learning,” acquiring new knowledge without eliminating old memories, even when the same neurons are used for multiple tasks. One strategy the brain uses for this learning challenge is the selective activation of cells or cellular components for different tasks—essentially turning on smaller, overlapping sub-networks for each individual skill, or under different contexts.

The UChicago researchers adapted this neuroscientific mechanism to artificial neural networks through an algorithm they called “context-dependent gating.” For each new task learned, only a random 20 percent of a neural network is activated. After the network is trained on hundreds of different tasks, a single node might be involved in dozens of operations, but with a unique set of peers for each individual skill.

When combined with methods previously developed by Google and Stanford researchers, context-dependent gating allowed networks to learn as many as 500 tasks with only a small decrease in accuracy.

“It was a little bit surprising that something this simple worked so well,” said Nicolas Masse, a postdoctoral researcher in the Freedman lab. “But with this method, a fairly medium-sized network can be carved up a whole bunch of ways to be able to learn many different tasks if done properly.”

As such, the approach likely has great potential in the growing AI industry, where companies developing autonomous vehicles, robotics and other smart technologies need to pack complex learning capabilities into consumer-level computers. The UChicago team is currently working with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to explore commercialization options for the algorithm.

The computational research also benefits the laboratory’s original focus on better understanding the primate brain by recording its activity as animals learn and behave. Modeling and testing strategies that enable learning, attention, sensory processing and other functions in a computer can motivate and suggest new biological experiments that probe the mechanisms of intelligence both natural and artificial, the researchers said.

“Adding in this component of research to the lab has really opened a lot of doors in terms of allowing us to think about new kinds of problems, new kinds of neuroscience topics and problems that we normally can't really address using the experimental techniques currently available to us in the lab,” Freedman said. “We hope this is the starting point for more work in the lab to both identify those principles and to help create artificial networks that continue learning and building on prior knowledge.”

Citation: “Alleviating catastrophic forgetting using context-dependent gating and synaptic stabilization,” Nicolas Y. Masse, Gregory D. Grant, and David J. Freedman, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 12, 2018. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1803839115

Funding: This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

Wed, 31 Dec 1969

More than two decades ago, Rebecca Sandefur stepped onto the UChicago campus for the first time as a graduate student, drawn by what she saw as a unique challenge.

Even on her school visit, she had sensed the University’s culture of serious intellectual inquiry, one she likened to “a rigorous, bare-knuckle brawl about ideas.” It felt like the perfect place for her to become a sociologist.

Although Sandefur, AM’97, PhD’01, hoped to study inequality in children’s schooling, a chance call from a UChicago professor turned her focus to the legal system. That switch eventually made her an expert on low-income access to civil justice—work that reentered the spotlight on Oct. 4, when she was one of 25 people awarded a prestigious MacArthur fellowship

Once the shock of winning wore off, she started thinking about what the honor meant for her research.

“It’s been off the radar for 40 or 50 years,” said Sandefur, now an associate professor of sociology and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This is an opportunity to bring the focus back.”

UChicago sociologist Edward Laumann was the scholar who helped re-direct Sandefur’s research, bringing her on as a research assistant and supervising her dissertation, which analyzed the social organization of legal careers. Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology and the College, remembered Sandefur as “a very sophisticated researcher and a sharp colleague, and a pleasure to work with.”

“It was a springboard,” Sandefur said of her dissertation. “I went from studying lawyers’ careers to studying lawyers as a tool for people to access their rights. It quickly became clear that they are part of a much larger project.”

More than 50 people affiliated with the University have won MacArthur fellowships, most recently social justice activist Rami Nashashibi, AM’98, PhD’11 in 2017.

Access to civil justice

In selecting Sandefur, the MacArthur Foundation cited her creation of the first national map of civil legal aid providers. Published in 2011, the report collected data to create a state-by-state portrait of civil legal services. Five years later, she co-authored another study that examined the success of New York City Court Navigators, a pilot program that paired trained staffers to assist and advise litigants in housing and civil courts.

The reliance on lawyers, Sandefur said, stands in contrast to how public education functions. Few would expect parents who enroll their children in public schools to hire private consultants to navigate bureaucratic hurdles or accompany students to class.

Sandefur’s research quantified the ways in which trained non-lawyers can ensure just outcomes in civil cases, in which litigants are not guaranteed legal representation. Trained staffers can be particularly valuable to those who can’t afford traditional lawyers, or who might not even see problems with landlords or employers as ones necessitating legal remedies.

Access to civil justice was a more widely recognized problem during the 1960s and 1970s, Sandefur said, but faded from the national consciousness along with the War on Poverty.

The 47-year-old sociologist now hopes to use her MacArthur grant money—$625,000 dispensed over five years—to provide seed funding for ambitious initiatives. She pointed out that the New York City Court Navigators had a 100 percent success rate in its first year, saving roughly 150 people from eviction with the equivalent of just three full-time staffers. Illinois and Colorado also have launched similar programs.

However, no one has tested how similar work might fare at a larger scale.

“We’ve had 25 years of really cool pilot projects, but we haven’t had any of these major innovations go to scale,” Sandefur said. “Is there a way that we can do that? How much does it actually cost? How much would it save?

“It’s the next activity that would organize the field, but it’s also the next step in understanding how to solve this problem.”

Wed, 31 Dec 1969