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Institute dedicates Brain & Cog Complex

The atrium of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex resembled a five-story illuminated manuscript -- complete with golden light, dazzling surfaces and young faces gazing down -- during the dedication ceremony to open the new homes for the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Keynote speakers at the ceremony, held Friday, Dec. 2, applauded the soaring, optimistic architecture of the complex and invited those present to imagine the space as an open book on future breakthroughs in understanding the human mind and brain.

The new 411,000-square-foot complex is the largest neuroscience center in the world. Bold and elegant in its design, the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex was born of a collaboration between two architecture firms and reflects the extraordinary vision of the lead designer, Charles Correa, and the exceptional design of laboratories and research spaces by Goody, Clancy and Associates.

The complex also includes facilities for the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging.

President Susan Hockfield described the new complex as a "place of community and inspiration, an oasis of light and space that makes the spirit soar. This opening is a great day for MIT and for all those around the world who will benefit in years ahead from work that will be done here."

A neuroscientist herself, Hockfield said, "The opening of this complex opens a new era for brain sciences, a truly unique opportunity for cross-fertilization and creative interactions not only with life sciences and medicine but also with engineering, linguistics and computational science."

Hockfield encouraged those present to join her in imagining what lies ahead. "Faculty, students and staff are already at work in the labs around us, taking the next steps in the journey of discovery. I cannot predict what they will find, but I am certain that in these extraordinary new facilities they will do astonishing work that will improve life for all of us," she said.

She praised "visionary philanthropists" Pat and Lore Harp McGovern and Jeffry and Barbara Picower for their "catalytic private support and dedication to the realization of a great dream" and thanked the architects, engineers, MIT project managers and Turner Construction for "creating beautifully crafted spaces."

Hockfield also acknowledged faculty leaders who played "critical roles at every step," including McGovern Institute founding Director Phillip Sharp, current McGovern Director Robert Desimone and Picower Institute Director Susumu Tonegawa.

Cambridge Mayor Michael Sullivan praised MIT for its vital role in the city's economic development and movingly portrayed his own vision for the future of neuroscience research.

"This facility offers promise for families decimated by brain diseases like Alzheimer's and autism. It offers hope that such tragedy will not touch a family. I thank the donors, the people working here and everyone who is bringing the promise of relieving pain in our families," Sullivan said.

Mriganka Sur, head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, described the opening of the neuroscience complex as a "moment that cleaves history, dividing what came before from what comes after."

Focusing on the 40th anniversary of the department's graduate program, Sur declared the new complex a celebration of "an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the brain and mind in health and in disease."

Earlier in the day, the department celebrated its anniversary with a symposium, "Looking Back, Looking Forward: Shaping Neuroscience and Cognitive Science."

Sur said he anticipated the building would serve as a catalyst for imaginative breakthroughs and noted, "I look forward with anticipation to the road ahead."

Sur joined the other featured speakers in expressing gratitude to Charles Vest, president emeritus, Robert Brown, former MIT provost, and Robert Silbey, dean of the School of Science, for their vision, understanding and resoluteness as the complex was funded, designed and completed.

Desimone described the day's event as a "time to celebrate all that we have accomplished together and all that we will do together."

For Desimone and his fellow speakers, "we" included major donors, MIT colleagues and colleagues outside MIT. He thanked the Picowers and the McGoverns for crucial contributions that made the new complex possible.

The kind of cooperation and collaboration that produced the elegant new complex is exactly what we are going to need in the future, Desimone said. "We are a long way from understanding the human mind, and having truly effective treatments for brain disorders like schizophrenia or autism. To make progress, we are going to need teamwork from every group represented in this complex, from cognitive science, molecular biology, genetics, physiology, computation and much more. This building complex is the place where it's all going to come together, where we show everyone how it's done," he said.

Tonegawa described the opening and dedication of the new research facilities as an "epoch-making day not just for sciences but also for humanity throughout the world."

The 1987 Nobel laureate added, "To know how the brain works is to know what human beings are. The history of science is punctuated by moments when big leaps happen. Neuroscience stands at such a moment today," he said.

Tonegawa joined the other speakers as he expressed his "deeply felt gratitude to the Picowers -- extraordinary patrons -- and to everyone who made the three days of memorable celebrations."

Silbey drew the crowd's attention to the youthful faces gazing down from the atrium's upper levels -- "Fantastic! Like birds on a wire!" -- then focused on the lighter side of ambitious, innovative construction projects.

And how do those get done? Silbey offered understated step-by-step instructions, including "have scientific leaders with great vision," "convince administration the time is now," "convince donors," "have patience" and "keep your sense of humor."

Silbey praised the "untiring efforts" of administrative staff who worked "incredibly long hours" as well as the architects who "made this wonderful building work."

Dana Mead, chairman of the Corporation, welcomed the group of 350 including faculty, Corporation members and community members to the ceremony.

"This is a signal event in the history of the brain and cognitive science department and science at MIT. It has been 40 years since the department was launched, and now this magnificent complex provides a new intellectual home for our distinguished scientists, students and colleagues," Mead said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 7, 2005 (download PDF).

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