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Honoring a Tradition of Innovation with a Gift for Brain Research
For the Harman family, Stanford's leading role in neuroscience recalls an earlier scientific revolution.
Like many with loved ones who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, Stephanie and Fred Harman, ’82, MS ’83, have a profound respect for the complexities of the human brain. After both of their mothers were diagnosed with the illness, they set out to learn as much as they could about the brain, in health and disease. They quickly realized what an enigma it remains, even to scientists.
Now the Harmans have made a gift to Stanford that they hope will help unlock the secrets of the brain. They endowed the Harman Family Provostial Professorship to support the work of neuroscientist William Newsome, recently appointed by President Obama to co-lead the federal BRAIN initiative and by President Hennessy to lead the new Stanford Neurosciences Institute.
“Stanford’s broad agenda and interdisciplinary approach matched our thinking,” says Fred Harman, who as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist knows that great leaps forward often result from investing early in big ideas.
Stanford has produced many of the most critical recent advances in the neurosciences. For example, over the last several years, the invention of optogenetics has allowed researchers to control individual neurons with light, leading to better understanding of mood disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. New discoveries about the role of the immune system in the brain have broad implications for learning, memory, and recovery from stroke. And in 2013, Stanford became the first West Coast site for FDA trials of neural prosthetics based on motor cortex activity, which could eventually offer more independence to patients with paralysis.
This could well be the beginning of a new scientific revolution. As the Harmans’ exploration brought them to what some call the last frontier of science, they began to see parallels with the technology revolution that spawned Silicon Valley—one in which their family played a part.
Fred’s mother (May, MA ’48) and father (Ward, ENG ’48, PhD ’54), both World War II veterans, met at Stanford while studying on the GI Bill along with Ward’s brother, Willis, MS ’48, PhD ’48. May had come to study physical therapy, while Ward and Willis had been drawn to Stanford to study electrical engineering with legendary professor (and later provost) Frederick Terman. They had long admired Terman’s research in radio engineering and its contribution to the U.S. advantage in the war. Their timely move to the Farm ensured they would play an active role in the dawn of the electronic age.
“My parents and uncle came to Stanford at a seminal moment in its history,” explains Fred Harman, himself a Stanford electrical engineer by training. “Professor Terman had declared Stanford the place to go in this important field, which led to amazing things in Silicon Valley and beyond.”
Ward Harman went on to a distinguished research career in industry. Willis joined the Stanford faculty and helped establish one of the university’s first interdisciplinary departments, Engineering Economic Systems, in the late 1960s. He even applied his engineering background to the study of the mind and consciousness.
Both men embraced Terman’s philosophy of “agile development”—rapid translation of new science into technological innovation. Today Fred Harman, as a board member of Stanford Hospital & Clinics, has observed the swift translation of science to clinical trials and treatments. “That DNA has continued to persist at Stanford.”
Stephanie Harman is actively involved in Part the Cloud, a Menlo Park–based organization promoting research and understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. The Harman Family Provostial Professorship complements that work by supporting fundamental study of the brain.
Provostial chairs support faculty who bridge multiple disciplines. Newsome’s research combines computation, behavior, and physiology to examine how the firing of nerve cells in the brain correlates with and even predicts behavior. His work has led to a better understanding of visual perception and decision making, and is being widely applied in fields as specialized as neuroeconomics.
As director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, Newsome will lead the collaborative efforts of more than 100 faculty members spread across 14 Stanford departments, bringing traditional neuroscientists together with physicists, statisticians, engineers, molecular biologists, geneticists, and even lawyers, educators, and ethicists. "The study of the brain is no longer, if it ever was, just a problem of biology," says Newsome. “We need to bring new minds to the conversation to think in fundamentally new ways about what kind of experiments it makes sense to do in this age of rapid technological advances."
It’s a comprehensive, long-term approach that resonates with the Harmans. “Somewhere along the way, Alzheimer’s will be solved,” says Stephanie Harman, “but this professorship will continue for hundreds of years. It channels some of the passion and energy we have around our immediate issues into the long-term future of neuroscience research.”
The brain has captured the family’s interest today the way radio engineering did for the previous generation.
“That postwar period was a wonderful moment for Silicon Valley and for Stanford as a university,” says Fred Harman. “With Bill Newsome leading the institute, this could be a similar moment for Stanford in neuroscience.”
PHOTOS: Courtesy of Harman Family, Victoria Rouse, Brie Linkenhoker