New Leaders for a Strong Community
Holt and Fiez to lead a reimagined neuroscience partnership
By Caroline Sheedy
Two neuroscience powerhouses, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, have a long-standing partnership in the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), a 28-year-old neuroscience research and education program. After a year-long reimagining process, the universities have announced that Lori Holt of CMU and Julie Fiez of Pitt are the new leaders of what they call “the world’s most exciting and neighborly playground for pioneering research and training in the neural basis of cognition.”
The center leverages CMU’s strong cognitive and computational neuroscience programs with Pitt’s basic and clinical neuroscience expertise. It provides a way for students and faculty to connect formally and informally, including graduate training, undergraduate research opportunities and “collaboration clusters,” which encourage joint publications and grant submissions from the two universities.
Holt, a professor in CMU’s Neuroscience Institute and Department of Psychology, is an expert in auditory cognitive neuroscience with a focus on understanding how humans interpret the complexity of spoken language. She has been a longtime member of the center and welcomes the opportunity to strengthen existing ties.
“The proximity, collegiality and complementary expertise of the two institutions makes Pittsburgh a truly unique place to study the neural basis of cognition,” Holt said. “Both institutions place a high value on this partnership, and we are excited about what the future holds.”
Holt has worked closely with Fiez since 2007. The two lead the joint Pitt-CMU predoctoral training program in behavioral brain research, known as B2. That program, which is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, has provided 50 Pitt and CMU students with two years of support to do research at the intersection of brain and behavior. Fiez said it is an excellent example of the way Pitt and CMU work together.
“Our mentors and trainees come together through co-mentorship committees and program activities to forge truly interdisciplinary connections,” she said. “This way of working, of breaking down barriers, is part of what brought me to Pittsburgh in the first place.”
Fiez is the chair of Pitt’s Department of Psychology. Her research focuses on neural systems for language and learning, and integrates behavioral, neuroimaging, neuropsychological and intracranial recording methods in typical adults and clinical populations.
Since 2021, CNBC has been led by Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, the George A. and Helen Dunham Cowan Professor of Auditory Neuroscience and director of CMU’s Neuroscience Institute, and Rob A. Rutenbar, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for research. Robert K. Cunningham, the vice chancellor for research infrastructure at Pitt, Stephen D. Meriney, professor and chairman of neuroscience and psychiatry at Pitt, Gerry Balbier, the executive director of CMU’s Neuroscience Institute, and Shinn-Cunningham led the reimagining process that culminated in the new leadership.
“We went through many exercises to try to figure out what people need and want out of the center and were able to generate feedback in a bottom up, grassroots way,” Shinn-Cunningham said. “The neuroscience programs at both universities have grown substantially over the years — but everyone still recognizes how much they gain from being part of the larger, more diverse community.”
Shinn-Cunningham went on to say that because of the substantial growth on both sides, the center is no longer the sole intellectual home for neuroscientists in Pittsburgh. Instead, the center views itself as a curious and friendly place for research, even including a subtle nod to Pittsburgh’s own Fred Rogers in its vision statement.
Robert Cunningham said this new vision for the center, along with a mission statement and core values, allows the center to look to the future.
“The history of the center is so important — it takes time to build an organization like this. We had an opportunity to listen to all members to both honor the past and see how they want to move forward. That’s what our new vision, mission and values set forth,” he said.
Barbara Shinn-Cunningham said the center really deserves energetic leaders devoted to nurturing Pitt-CMU neuroscience connections. Holt and Fiez stood out from a large pool of applicants.
The CNBC was formed in 1994 with support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Funding for the center now comes from CMU's Neuroscience Institute and from the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research at Pitt. In addition to Barbara Shinn-Cunningham and Rutenbar, previous co-directors were James L. McClelland, Carl Olson, Michael J. Tarr, Marlene Behrmann and Robert E. Kass from CMU; and Robert Moore, Peter Strick and Nathan Urban from Pitt.