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Research and real life

The Alumni-Faculty Forums are perhaps the most undervalued part of Reunions. These panel-led discussions capitalize on the wealth of backgrounds and bodies of knowledge that Princetonians bring to the table to discuss some of the most pressing and most intriguing issues we face today. I went to one such discussion,“Where will neuroscience take us?”,  a question that promises to be especially pertinent in the not-so-distant future. While the  discussion of emerging neuroimaging techniques was thought-provoking, what I found most important about the panel was its focus on the interplay between neuroscience research and applying the findings of that research: In short, on the interplay between researchers and practitioners.

Neuroscientists represented half of the members of the panel, with cognitive neuroscientist and Princeton professor Jonathan Cohen as a moderator and neuroscience Ph.D. candidate Daniel O’Shea ’09 as a panelist. The other half of the panel, however, were not scientists: panelist Patrice McConnell Cromwell ’84 is part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization dedicated to serving disadvantaged children and families, and panelist S. Matthew Liao ’94 is a bioethicist from New York University.

Though Cromwell and Liao repeatedly reminded the audience that they were not neuroscientists, both of them impressively demonstrated solid knowledge of the discipline and explained how the findings and possibilities of neuroscience could, should and do help to shape their own work. As a bioethicist, Liao’s line of work has a fairly direct link to neuroscience, but Cromwell’s connection to the science is less obvious: Because her work strives to improve the lives of those in poverty, understanding the effects of poverty on brain and cognitive development can help her to implement appropriate interventions to counteract some of the negative neurodevelopmental effects that poverty gives rise to.

In her column “The relevance of pop culture to academia,” Sarah Schwartz pointed out that “academia is often insular.” We need to do more to link theory and practice, research and real life. Far too often, the findings of fields like neuroscience and psychology remain unknown and unapplied by the people who, like Cromwell, are in a position to use what science has found to improve lives. This is a problem, and the burden of working toward practical solutions should fall on either side of the theory/practice line. Just as practitioners and policymakers should do their part by making sure they remain cognizant of the findings in fields that are relevant to their work, researchers should always consider the practical implications of their research. They should strive to think of creative practical uses for their findings beyond just the obvious ones. It falls to everyone involved to make sure that we’re getting the most that we can out of the findings of experimental research.

Richard Daker is a psychology major from Evergreen Park, Ill. He can be reached at

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