New head at MNI

New head at MNI McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 11, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 14
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New head at MNI

"I want to have lived in New York a third of my life," says Dr. David Colman. A lifelong New Yorker, Colman is the newly appointed director of the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University, and will hold the Wilder Penfield Chair as Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery. "I'm 53 years old," he adds with a laugh, "so I suppose the first third is over!"

Photo Dr. David Colman
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Colman's appointment takes effect this September. He currently runs a myelination, spinal cord injury and nerve cell development/regeneration research lab at New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where he is also the Annenberg Professor of Molecular Biology and Neuroscience. He says a major incentive for moving to McGill is the MNI's unique commitment "to making basic science a practical entity." The close interaction between researchers and clinicians is an idea that has been largely lost at other institutions, he says, but that has remained at the fore during the MNI's almost 70-year existence.

"When Wilder Penfield set this place up," Colman elaborates, "he had this in mind, sort of. He was approaching it from the standpoint of someone who had spent a great deal of time at really first-rate institutions like Columbia University where he had come across people, called clinicians, who were doing science and interested in scientific problems. That really influenced him in informing the MNI: he wanted to bring together people, all kinds of people, to study problems that plagued humanity.

"That's been preserved here in a very unique way. The buzzword you hear today is 'transitional research,' which is when you take what's happening in basic science and move it in a planned way toward the bedside. He never called it this, but that's what Penfield had in mind in 1934."

Colman himself dislikes being labelled simply a neuroscientist "because that puts me in a compartment. I'm not a neuroscientist, I'm a biologist. And I think that most of the people here are also biologists." He applauds the way the MNI's epilepsy, MS and neuromuscular disease programs, for example, eschew the traditional research-clinical divisions.

"I don't want to give the impression that there are basic scientists who have been co-opted: they have a fundamental interest in clinical problems. Many people partition basic science on one side, and innovative clinical work -- like new therapies for diseases -- on the other. In fact, I think it's all part and parcel of the same spectrum. Ideally, there's no separation. All of this is science.

"And, as Feynman said," Colman quotes the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, "'science, when done right, is a humanity.'"

Colman's philosophically holistic attitude extends to the working relationship between the MNI and the Montreal Neurological Hospital, which he prefers to see as one. (Simply, "the Neuro.") In this same way, he sees McGill working with the rest of the city's scientific community, to create "a fantastically good place to do interesting work." Colman blanches at the term "marketing," but does hope to raise Montreal's global profile as "one of the very few places on the planet where you have so many scientists working at such a high level." He envisions "cultural experiments" (such as inviting biologists, engineers, neural network experts and artificial intelligence developers to discuss topics "at the frontier, or not yet at the frontier" of neuroscience, such as the problem of consciousness) as a way to not only raise Montreal's profile, but to attract even more resources and bright minds, and inevitably lead to further scientific breakthroughs. "What I'm talking about is saying, 'Here's what we do, and here's what we're really good at.' There's nothing wrong with saying that. It will make us even better at what we do, and we'll solve problems even quicker.

"A question I hear a lot lately is 'Why would you leave New York?' and I think it's a wrong question. It's like Daniel Dennett writes, in I think it's Consciousness Explained. He says neuroscientists frequently ask the wrong question. Scientists ask, 'Why do we sleep?' when the real question is 'Why are we ever awake?'

"This is a great job, a great university, a great city. There is a terrific concentration of neuroscientists -- some of the best in the world -- here at McGill. New Yorkers hype everything, but I'm not a 'hyper.' I'm really impressed with what I see here, or I wouldn't be here."

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