Columbia’s Rafael Yuste Wins Vannevar Bush Fellowship

Rafael Yuste, professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, whose innovative research has advanced our understanding of how neural circuits work, has been awarded the Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship.

The five-year, $3 million fellowship is the U.S. Department of Defense’s most prestigious single-investigator award and supports basic research with the potential for transformative impact.

Yuste is one of eight recipients, out of more than 200 applicants, to receive the award. Last year, two Columbia faculty also received this award—Dimitri Basov, professor of physics, and Paul Sajda, professor of biomedical engineering.

Originally from Spain, Yuste, who joined the Columbia faculty in 1996, works on deciphering the function of the cerebral cortex, the largest part of the brain in mammals. The cortex is responsible for all higher cognitive functions and is affected in most neurological and mental diseases.

Yuste’s lab has pioneered many optical methods to study the function of the cortex in animals that are now widely used in neuroscience, such as calcium imaging and two-photon microscopy.

With his work supported by the fellowship, Yuste will focus on deciphering the neural code of small invertebrate called hydra. These freshwater polyps, related to jellyfish, have one of the simplest nervous systems in nature, which make them easier to study than mammals.

Once he can determine how the animals’ neurons interact to create behavior, Yuste plans to engineer their nervous system so they generate new behaviors. He hopes that seeing how the circuits work will lead to new insights into how our own brains work.

“I am honored to have been chosen and elated as a neurobiologist to have received the Vannevar Bush award, a program that normally focuses on physical sciences and engineering,” Yuste said. “I am also particularly proud to help bring in research funding to Columbia in these difficult times. Science should continue stronger than ever, virus or no virus, and our group will do its best to ensure that transformative work will emerge out of these difficult times.”

The 2020 class of award recipients will join a group of 65 current fellows, who conduct research in areas of importance to the Defense Department, ranging from materials science and cognitive neuroscience to quantum information sciences, applied thematics and computational sciences.

The Vannevar Bush Fellowship, administered by the Office of Naval Research, commemorates Vannevar Bush, the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II.

— Carla Cantor, Columbia Science

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