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Two Yale School of Public Health professors appointed to Wu Tsai Institute at Yale

June 27, 2022
by Fran Fried

Yale School of Public Health professors Kai Chen and Robert McDougal have been appointed members of the Wu Tsai Institute (WTI) at Yale.

The institute, which includes researchers from natural, social, computational, and engineering sciences at Yale, is devoted to the interdisciplinary study of human cognition. More than 130 researchers from more than 29 departments across five Yale schools are members of WTI. Both professors applied for membership in January and were recently informed that their appointments were approved.

“As you know, WTI supports neuroscience research, training, and community across Yale with a mission to understand human cognition and explore human potential by sparking interdisciplinary inquiry,” wrote Nicholas Turk-Browne, institute director and professor of psychology, in his congratulatory letters to both professors. “Carrying out this mission requires interaction among a vibrant and diverse group of colleagues. Your expertise greatly complements and strengthens this group.”

Both professors said they are eager to begin their new roles.

“I am super excited to become a member of the WTI,” said Chen, an assistant professor of Epidemiology (Environmental Health Sciences) and director of research for climate change and health at the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH).

McDougal, an assistant professor in the Health Informatics Division of the Department of Biostatistics, said: “I look forward to the opportunities to strengthen connections between YSPH’s Health Informatics Division and the Wu Tsai Institute’s community of researchers from across the university.”

McDougal explained how his work intersects with the mission of WTI.

“I develop and apply computational and informatics approaches to gain insight into health,” he said. “Several of my research collaborations involve neuroscientific questions; I have ongoing collaborations using informatics and/or simulation to explore issues connected to stroke, dementia, and migraine. (Migraine alone affects around 1 billion people worldwide.) Additionally, since long before my appointment at YSPH, I have contributed to the development of the NEURON simulator and the ModelDB database of computational neuroscience models.”

Chen’s work focuses on the impact of climate change on human health. “Most recently,” he said, “we have started working on understanding the potential independent and joint effects of climate-related exposures, such as extreme heat and increased levels of air pollution, on cognitive functions. For example, our recent study found an association between long-term ozone exposure and cognitive decline in a cohort of older Chinese adults. This area of research on climate change and cognitive science aligns very well with the mission of the Wu Tsai Institute.”

Chen and McDougal hope their WTI memberships and the opportunity to work with scientists in other fields will broaden their perspectives and knowledge.

“Studying climate change and health requires interdisciplinary collaboration,” Chen said. “During my membership, I hope to connect and collaborate with Yale experts on neuroscience and cognition and work together with motivated and talented students or postdocs to better understand the biological and socio-behavioral processes related to climate change, extreme weather, and air pollution that affect the brain health.”

Said McDougal: “I hope to learn new perspectives on working with neuroscience data and applying what we learn from neuroscience to gain insights from other data sets. I’m excited that the WTI explicitly embraces artificial models and algorithms along with basic neuroscience research. I believe that machine learning and other informatics strategies are powerful tools for insights into biological and health data. I also hope to use the opportunities provided by the WTI to help neuroscience trainees as they learn to efficiently and correctly apply computational approaches to gain insight into brain function.”

The appointments are for three-year terms through Aug. 31, 2025 and are renewable.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on June 27, 2022