A neuroscientist who spent his scientific career studying how connections between brain cells form — and who currently helps form connections between researchers studying autism — has been appointed a visiting professor at Rockefeller University. Fischbach, the second visiting professor to be named since the formal visitors program began last fall, will divide his time between the university’s campus and his office at The Simons Foundation, where he has served as scientific director of the foundation’s Autism Research Initiative since early 2006.
Fischbach, who received his M.D. from Cornell University Medical School in 1962, has worked for much of his career on synapses, the connections between nerve cells through which information and instructions are passed during perception, thought and locomotion. He was the first to pioneer the use of nerve cell cultures in order to study developing synapses in laboratory conditions, and his work led to the characterization of many of the biochemical, electrophysiological and molecular mechanisms by which they function. His more recent work has been on neurotrophic factors that influence synaptic efficacy and nerve cell survival.
Over the last four decades he has held faculty positions at the National Institutes of Health, Harvard Medical School, Washington University School of Medicine and Columbia University Medical Center. In addition to his research, Fischbach served as chair of the department of neurobiology at Washington University and at Harvard Medical School, as director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and, from 2001 to 2006, as Columbia’s executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences and dean of the faculties of medicine. Since stepping down from the last position he has been eager to reimmerse himself full-time in big-picture thinking about science.
For the past two years, Fischbach has overseen the autism program at the Simons Foundation, a philanthropy founded by mathematician and hedge fund manager Jim Simons and his wife Marilyn, The Simons Foundation has awarded $130 million over five years to researchers studying autism. Recent awards have focused on understanding the complex genetics of autism; in its biggest project, about 100 researchers at 13 universities are interviewing families and collecting blood samples in an effort to identify genetic factors that may enhance the risk of the disease. Other investigators are focused on the neuroscience of autism and on data analysis.
“Autism is not like other brain disorders — there are no molecules to target and the mutations involved are complex,” says Fischbach. “In order to learn more about it, we need scientists to think about the brain from many different angles. We need mathematicians, engineers, chemists and neuroscientists to approach the problems from their unique perspectives and share their findings.” As a condition of accepting Simons grants, researchers must agree to share data and other resources and attend regular interactive workshops.
“What’s exciting about Rockefeller is that the faculty here are already thinking in broad ways and focusing on big problems,” says Fischbach. “There’s a lot of activity in terms of applying math and physics to all aspects of neurology. I’m looking forward to engaging with the community, taking part in discussions and helping contribute to the academic life of Rockefeller. I may even do some experiments.”
“Gerry has spent his career working on synapses, but he’s always asked broad questions. He wants to know how synapses form and how they function, but also how they interact with muscles, what happens when they fail, and how they account for behavior and social interactions,” says Paul Nurse, Rockefeller University’s president. “As an administrator, he’s worked hard to bring scientists together across disciplines.”
Fischbach will continue at The Simons Foundation while at Rockefeller and will also maintain his small lab at Columbia, from which he is on leave.