Subscribe to eTOC

Society for Neuroscience's David C. Van Essen
On Attracting the Best and the Brightest to Neuroscience Research

David C. Van Essen, PhD, the outgoing president of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), knew as a child that he wanted to be a scientist when he grew up. His focus on neuroscience “crystallized in college after reading a fascinating book about the brain.”

Dr. Van Essen, the Edison Professor of Neurobiology and the head of the department of anatomy and neurobiology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, received his graduate degree in neurobiology in 1971 from Harvard and completed additional postdoctoral work in England and Norway before joining the faculty at Caltech (his undergraduate alma mater) in 1976. In 1992, he moved to Washington University.

A basic neuroscientist by training with a primary focus on the structure, function, and development of the mammalian cerebral cortex, Dr. Van Essen has worked extensively on how the brain perceives color, shape, and motion, and how attention affects neural activity. His lab has developed software tools for computerized brain mapping and cortical cartography for neurological and psychiatric diseases, such as autism, schizophrenia, and Williams Syndrome.


Dr. David C. Van Essen: ”Increased federal spending for biomedical research is a top priority of the SfN and others in the research advocacy community. Another is ensuring continued support for the responsible use of animals in research.”

In a phone interview with Neurology Today, he discussed the challenges and opportunities he enjoyed as president of the Society for Neuroscience, a leadership position he turned over to Eve E. Marder, PhD, in November at the SfN annual meeting in San Diego.

Tell us a bit about your involvement in the organization prior to becoming president.

Prior to my one-year term as president of the SfN, I was a section editor (1989–1993), then editor-in-chief (1994-98) for the society's journal, the Journal of Neuroscience. I then served on the SfN's Council as councilor (1999-2002), secretary (2002-2004), and president-elect (2005-2006).

What are the top three or four issues affecting your members?

Increased federal spending for biomedical research is a top priority of the SfN and others in the research advocacy community. Another is ensuring continued support for the responsible use of animals in research. A third is to help promote professional development of our membership at all stages of their careers.

How are you addressing funding?

We are actively courting biomedical industry business leaders in our advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill and with the Administration; educating key members of Congress in both parties whose vote could make a difference for federal support of biomedical research; continuing efforts to visit elected officials on a regular basis; and participating in Brain Awareness Week outreach activities.

The SfN has begun a two-year effort leading up to election year 2008 in which we hope to identify specific key players in both parties who may become more supportive of biomedical research. We will try to focus on 30 to 40 members of Congress in both parties, aiming to educate them about the importance of biomedical research and persuading a majority of them to vote consistently in support of the NIH and related biomedical research issues.

How are you addressing the responsible use of animals in research?

The SfN has had preliminary discussions with organizations whose members include university chancellors and presidents. Our goal is to heighten their awareness of threats posed by activists and provide tips on preparing for possible attacks, including offering insight into ways that university attorneys can assist their researchers.

For example, the University of California-Los Angeles completed a landmark safety and security report in late 2006 that clearly articulated the university's responsibility to protect its researchers in their conduct of legitimate academic inquiry. We have discussed with the NIH officials what could be done to encourage other universities to create plans similar to UCLA's.

Has animal research been an increasing concern for your members in recent years? What other strategies does the SfN have in place to address it?

Our Committee on Animals in Research (CAR) offers support to SfN members who are under attack by animal rights activists. The SfN had as many attacks reported to us in 2006 — six — as we did in the entire five-year span from 1999 to 2003. This appears to be a dramatic increase, but it may be that just as many attacks were occurring in the past and went unreported. In the past year we have implemented an action plan to provide appropriate assistance to researchers under attack (assuming the individual is not currently under investigation by the home institution). This includes personal contact from the CAR chair, a site visit if warranted, letters of support, and help working with university administration and public affairs staff if necessary.

We also continue to work with university attorneys to improve awareness of this issue, and to reach out to senior staff at the NIH to impress upon them the importance of backing the research community. While this will no doubt remain an issue facing the life sciences, we have the tools in place to properly address the threats.

We've also launched a Web site,, designed to inform SfN members and the general public of the importance of the responsible use of animals in research and to let them know how we can help in the unfortunate event of an attack.

Tell us about your membership.

We have over 38,000 members from around the world, representing basic, translational, and clinical neuroscience. Our international members have been the fastest growing segment of our membership. Of the total SfN membership, 29 percent is from outside North America and nearly 36 percent reside outside the United States, mostly in Canada and Europe. Approximately 80 percent of our members with advanced degrees are PhDs and 20 percent are MDs or MD/PhDs.

Why is diversity in science important to the SfN (and the focus of a committee), and how is the SfN addressing it?

Developing a strong and competitive science workforce means finding the brightest, most creative and energetic individuals, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender. In order to attract the potential diverse neuroscientists of the future, it is important to have strong role models with whom young people can identify.

The SfN committee oversees education, training, and professional development activities designed to enhance the career development of underrepresented minorities in neuroscience. The main efforts have been funded through two NIH-funded grants for minority fellowship programs which, combined, have supported over 300 minority neuroscience graduate and postdoctoral trainees over the years. For the Neuroscience Scholars Program, which began in 1981, the SfN provides three-year fellowships that include travel assistance to the Society's annual meeting, mentoring, enrichment funds, and SfN membership benefits. The SfN coordinates and collaborates with other diversity in neuroscience training programs in the U.S.

In the face of federal cutbacks in research funding from the National Science Foundation and the NIH, how are your bench scientists faring?

SfN members definitely are feeling the crunch with NIH funding not keeping up with inflation. According to the NIH data, only about one of five applications is funded, and the average age of a first award for a PhD is 42, compared with age 37 in 1980. This trend particularly impacts young investigators, who are finding it increasingly difficult to acquire their first major research grants. Some are becoming frustrated and leaving research altogether or leaving the U.S. for better funding prospects in other countries. It is vital that funding for bench science through the NIH and the National Science Foundation increase, at least on par with biomedical inflation, to preserve U.S. competitiveness in the global scientific arena.

Could you tell us about any special programs the SfN has under way to promote recruitment to careers in neuroscience?

Through our work with teachers and students in the K-12 arena, we aim to get students excited at a young age about studying the brain. For example, we provide educational resources to teachers and link them up with neuroscientists who can interact with their classrooms and talk about the science as well as their careers. As a sponsor of the Science Olympiad, SfN ensures that neuroscience content reaches the 14,000-plus participating schools in the US.

We also participate in Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives to organize and support annual Brain Awareness Week. We are also exploring an exciting new collaboration with the National Health Museum to produce multimedia and online educational modules that portray “great ideas” in neuroscience. Through interviews with neuroscientists and other attention-grabbing displays, we hope to excite viewers about careers in neuroscience.

For young neuroscientists, the SfN provides opportunities to broaden their knowledge and advance their careers through courses and workshops at the annual meeting; NeuroJobs, the Society's online career center; and a mentoring program that we plan to expand. Our membership survey identified mentoring as one of the critical needs expressed by our younger members.

What do you want to be known for as president of the SfN?

I hope that my biggest accomplishment will be in the arena of data sharing and data mining in the neurosciences, through heightened awareness of their importance and their feasibility. In connection with this theme, I helped organize and chair a conference called “PubMed Plus: New Directions in Publishing and Data Mining,” held in St. Louis in June. This conference, inspired by SfN's Neuroinformatics Committee and sponsored in part by the SfN, brought together a notably diverse assembly of neuroscientists, neuroinformaticians, bioinformaticians, journal editors, publishers, librarians, and funding agency representatives.

Each of the four working groups at the conference generated short-term and long-term recommendations, some of which are already starting to bear fruit. My hope is that these recommendations will help lead to dramatic improvements over the next five to ten years in how neuroscientists access information in electronic journals and in neuroscience-related databases, thereby increasing research efficiency and accelerating the pace of discovery and its translation into the clinical arena.