Danielle Bassett, an Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, was named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow on September 17, 2014, along with 20 other “genius grant” winners. She was awarded the $625,000 fellowship to advance her study of the human brain, which applies tools from network science to yield insights into how our "neural circuitry" evolves over time and helps us learn.
Before joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, Bassett was a postdoctoral researcher from 2009—2011 at the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies (ICB) under the supervision of ICB Project Leader and UCSB Physics Professor Jean Carlson. In this brief period of time, Bassett co-authored more than 20 ICB-supported publications with four ICB project leaders: Scott Grafton, Jean Carlson, Mike Miller and Mike Gazzzaniga. Bassett was also a former UCSB, SAGE Center Junior Fellow from 2011—2013.
Bassett’s research—which also attracted a $50,000 Sloan Foundation grant earlier in the year—is inspired by her own unusual blend of interests. "I am a physicist by training," she said. "But I was also very interested in medicine in general, and psychology and psychiatry in particular. Along the way I was really looking for ways in which I could mold these two loves together."
She and colleagues indirectly measure the brain activity of research subjects with a type of MRI machine, monitoring how different regions of the brain interact as people learn. Unsurprisingly, fast learners have "flexible" brain networks that reconfigure quickly to incorporate new information or skills. Bassett believes that understanding how those reconfigurations occur in healthy people could lead to advances in rehabilitative techniques for individuals suffering from brain injuries or neurological disorders, or even ways to optimize the learning process for the average person.
Bassett says, with this award, she plans to focus on promoting some non-traditional research concepts that she says would struggle to get funding through normal scientific channels, as well as expanding her current observations beyond already-healthy subjects.
The MacArthur Fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards given to individuals who show originality, innovation and creativity in their professional pursuits. An anonymous pool of nominators picks several hundred candidates each year, and a small committee typically selects 20 to 30 winners based on both their past achievements and their promise of future success. Other 2014 winners include artists, lawyers, scientists, historians and musicians.