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The BRAIN Initiative and Grand Challenge Scholars

On September 30, OSTP hosted the White House BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Conference. The event was held to highlight recent progress and next steps on the President's BRAIN Initiative. Conference participants included representatives from academia, philanthropic foundations, companies, and several students from the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars Program. OSTP sat down with two of the Scholars to hear about their experiences at the conference.

On Tuesday, September 30, OSTP hosted the White House BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Conference. The BRAIN Initiative seeks to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain by mapping the brain, linking neural activity to behavior, and integrating computation with neuroscience experiments. Last week, former competitive snowboarder Kevin Pearce shared why the BRAIN Initiative has personal meaning for him, demonstrating the real positive impact that the Initiative has on individuals. The BRAIN Conference was held to highlight recent progress on the President’s BRAIN Initiative, and to look ahead at the tools and technologies that still need to be envisioned and created to meet the goals of the BRAIN Initiative.  The conference participants included representatives from the academic research community, national laboratories, philanthropic foundations, companies, and other key contributors across America that have aligned their research goals with the Initiative.

Several students from the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars Program were also invited to participate. Students selected for this prestigious, nationwide program may become some of the next generation’s top scholars. OSTP invited two of them, Kevin Mauro from Duke University and Kaleia Kramer from Arizona State University, to share their experiences from the conference.

What are your thoughts on the BRAIN initiative?

Kevin: The BRAIN Initiative is a much-needed kickstarter for research into the neurosciences. It's likely that many of the problems facing our understanding of the brain will have multiple solutions, each with its own pros and cons. An overwhelming amount of funding is still needed, but I believe all of this funding is both necessary and will produce tremendous results.  Additionally, I think people underestimate the mark scientific advancements can leave on our culture. The fact that, fifty years later, people are still inspired by the United States' moon landing is a sign that if U.S. were to lead the charge into understanding the brain, it could very well carry our reputation as a global scientific leader into the 21st century. Endeavors like the BRAIN Initiative are a way for our government to encourage research into the neurosciences.

Kaleia: The BRAIN initiative has provided a means for collaboration between multiple institutions and seeks to advance our understanding of the brain, revolutionizing our approach to research. As someone who researches the brain areas involved with motor control, and seeks to continue this research after graduating, I was thrilled to hear the announcement of the BRAIN Initiative. Its potential to solve some of our biggest questions about the brain will assist in our ability to understand and treat patients less invasively and more effectively. In addition, since the call to action from the Obama Administration, there has been a larger push toward conversation and collaboration between research groups.

What can students do to advance the goals of the BRAIN initiative? What advice would you give them?

Kaleia: Students who desire to advance the goals of the BRAIN initiative or engage on other scientific challenges of the 21st century should develop research questions related to their scientific challenges of interest. Fundraising is another way to advance research, as well as working with philanthropies that donate to the advancement of neuroscience and other scientific challenges of the 21st century. For students pursuing neuroscience, engineering, and other fields related to the BRAIN Initiative, I would recommend joining a research laboratory early in their undergraduate career and learn as much as possible prior to starting a project. The past two years I’ve spent in my laboratory have been invaluable, and I have directly applied most of my coursework to the development and execution of research questions in the laboratory. Also, students shouldn’t afraid to become involved prior to college in pre-college research programs, philanthropies, or even shadowing major researchers or companies involved in the BRAIN Initiative. There is no limit to what you can learn, regardless of your age, and never stop asking questions.

Kevin: The best way to become a valuable member in nearly any scientific field is to learn to code. Software developers are needed across all types of industry (private, university, government). It has been my experience that nearly every lab could use another pair of hands to perform data analysis or machine learning techniques that you can learn with at least some coding background.  There are practically an infinite number of ways to learn to code, most of them you can do in your free time.  If you want to stay in the realm of biology, try e-mailing a science laboratory at your school expressing interest. Of course, take advantage of the Grand Challenge Scholars Program if it's offered at your school. It really does give you a great mindset on to plan your future.

How would you describe NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program?

Kevin: Grand Challenges are a list of "dares" from an older generation to ours. We are dared to reverse-engineer the brain, we are dared to secure cyberspace, we are dared to prevent nuclear terror. This list is about nothing other than the pursuit of something that will last beyond our lifetimes, and trickle down in the history lessons taught to future generations. The 14 National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges for Engineering aren't just a call to those already in the field of science. They're a call to anyone passionate about scientific innovation and the grand impacts it can have on our lives.

Kaleia: The Grand Challenge Scholars Program is designed to address these NAE Grand Challenges and prepare students to solve the problems of the 21st century. Grand Challenge Scholars are required to choose one of the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering and fulfill five program components related to their grand challenge of interest. These components include two semesters of research experience, an interdisciplinary curriculum, entrepreneurship, a global dimension, and service learning.

How did you get involved in the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenge Scholar Program?

Kevin: I became involved in the NAE Grand Challenge Scholar (GCS) program through my dean at Duke University. The GCS program appealed to me because of its interdisciplinary approach. For example, many engineering programs across the country focus only on academics and if students are lucky, a research or industry component too. As a member of the GCS program, I'm required to have academic, global, research, service, and entrepreneurial components to my application. Coming into college I never expected that I would want to start a company once I graduated. However, the GCS program has done exactly that -- I have an idea for a start-up that I will likely pursue after college thanks to the 'push' that the GCS program gave me.

Kaleia: Watching my best friend in high school suffer from Reflex Neurovascular Dystrophy was heartbreaking and inspired me to pursue neuroscience as well as biomedical engineering in hopes of finding a means of alleviating the pain that she was experiencing. Since her recovery, I have maintained my drive to pursue this research and better understand this disorder, as well as other aspects of the brain. When I started my freshman year of college at Arizona State University as a biomedical engineer, I was enthusiastic about not only the Biomedical Engineering Department’s neural engineering focus, but also their encouragement of undergraduate research. After joining Dr. Marco Santello’s Neural Control of Movement Laboratory, I discovered the Grand Challenge Scholars Program and their rounded and holistic approach to engineering education. Since I already planned on focusing on neural engineering, I was delighted to discover that one of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenge areas was Reverse-Engineering the brain, which I am currently pursuing. 

Tell us about your NAE Grand Challenge work/research.

Kaleia: Motor control is essential for daily functions; although we know a lot about what we can do with motor control, we still lack the understanding of how it works. For the past two years I have been working with a team to try to understand the roles of different areas of the brain in planning, learning, and executing movement. This is done using a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) machine to create virtual lesions, inhibit, excite, and monitor cortical activity in areas related to motor control, planning, and execution. Using transcranial direct current stimulation as well as TMS, I hope to understand areas involved in both associative learning and dual task interference. These two areas of research can be later applied not only to a healthy population but to those with Alzheimer’s Disease in hopes of increasing associative learning and prevent dual task interference from affecting quality of daily life.

Kevin: My research is on brain-machine and brain-to-brain interfaces. Basically, I'm building the language that will let our brains talk to computers. One cool example that came from this kind of research is the Walk Again Project at the 2014 World Cup. My lab was able to design a brain-controlled exoskeleton that allowed a paralyzed teenager stand up and kick a soccer ball at the opening ceremony to the World Cup. This kind of "reverse-engineering the brain" is exactly what is promoted by both the BRAIN Initiative and the Grand Challenge Scholars Program.

Want to become more involved with BRAIN? Send your ideas for how the Administration can further the goals of the BRAIN Initiative at and stay up to date at

Erin Szulman is a Policy Analyst for OSTP's Division of National Security and International Affairs.