University Professor of Neuroscience, Policy, and Government, Schar School
Former Assistant Director, Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO), National Science Foundation (NSF)
Former Director, Krasnow Institute
NSF Press Release
September 3, 2014
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has selected George Mason University’s James L. Olds to serve as assistant director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO). BIO’s mission is to enable discoveries for understanding life. BIO-supported research advances the frontiers of biological knowledge, increases our understanding of complex systems, and provides a theoretical basis for original research in many other scientific disciplines.
Olds is a director and chief academic unit officer at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, a position he has held for 15 years. He is also the Shelley Krasnow University Professor of Molecular Neuroscience. The international Decade of the Mind project was begun under his leadership at Krasnow, which helped shape President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative.
“Dr. Olds has a strong record of academic leadership with an institution that has grown its global presence during his tenure,” said NSF Director France A. Córdova. “In addition to his leadership, his commitment to interdisciplinary research at Krasnow and his experience with developing scientific policy will be of great benefit to NSF and to the research community we serve.”
NSF-supported research and discovery in the biological sciences have yielded unforeseen discoveries that benefit society in vital ways. Many of these discoveries were made possible because of investments in basic research. BIO-supported research extends across systems that encompass biological molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, populations, communities, and ecosystems up to and including the global biosphere. Comprehensive concepts that bridge and unify the diverse areas of biology include complexity, robustness, communication, resilience, adaptability and cooperation. Achieving a coherent understanding of the complex biological web of interactions that is life is a major challenge of the future.
“Dr. Olds’ commitment to the pursuit of rigorous scientific research that can help solve society’s grandest challenges makes him supremely qualified to lead the NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate,” said Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. “I look forward to collaborating with Dr. Olds as the Administration continues to facilitate scientists’ work to expand the frontiers of human understanding in the biological sciences–a discipline of critical and growing importance to the nation and the world.”
Olds has served as chair of the molecular neuroscience department since 2007. From 2010-2011, and from 2013-2014, Old was chair of GMU’s Neuroscience Advisory Council. Since 2005, he has served as editor-in-chief of The Biological Bulletin, which is published by the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.
“I offer my hearty congratulations to both Jim Olds and to NSF,” said Alan Merten, former president of GMU. “Jim is a solid scientist and administrator, with exceptional breadth and depth of experience and knowledge. He’s constantly seeking opportunities for collaboration and recognizes that breakthroughs happen at the edge of disciplines.”
Olds serves on numerous private and public boards and has played a central role in scientific public policy development at all levels, ranging from Commonwealth of Virginia and the White House to advising heads of ministries internationally. He spent eight years as chair of Sandia National Laboratory’s External Cognitive Science Board. In the non-profit world, Olds was treasurer of Americans for Medical Progress.
“I was delighted to learn that Jim Olds has been selected for a leadership position in the Biological Sciences Directorate at NSF,” said Margaret McFall-Ngai, associate editor of The Biological Bulletin and professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin. “As a member of the editorial board for The Biological Bulletin, I had the opportunity to work with Jim, who has served as the editor-in-chief of the journal for the last several years. I have appreciated Jim’s breadth and rigor as a biologist, as well as his thoughtful and respectful nature. I feel that the directorate will be in very capable hands under Jim’s guidance.”
Prior to his leadership role at Krasnow, Olds was the CEO for the American Association of Anatomists. He received his undergraduate degree from Amherst College in chemistry and his doctorate from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the field of neuroscience. His postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) led to advances in understanding the molecular basis of learning and memory, and he received the NIH Merit Award in 1993.
Olds will begin his NSF appointment in October 2014.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2015, its budget is $7.3 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 48,000 competitive proposals for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
March 4, 2015 Multi-Council Working Group meeting
Oct. 1, 2015
By Michele McDonald April 5, 2013
The White House unveiled plans this month for its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies or BRAIN Initiative and has slated $100 million from the 2014 fiscal budget to fund the first year.
Turning 20 years old this year, Krasnow investigates neuroscience but also delves into physics, engineering, computer science, economics, psychology and anthropology, among other disciplines. Its multidisciplinary approach helps Krasnow researchers find innovative solutions.
“Krasnow is one of America’s unique treasures,” says James L. Olds, Krasnow’s director. “It was co-founded by two Nobel laureates (Murray Gell-Mann and Herbert A. Simon) with a vision. The goal is to produce consequential findings about the mechanisms of human cognition. What we do here is high risk, high payoff.”
In the next decade, brain mapping could bring such a payoff by providing improved treatments and a greater understanding of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and blindness.
For example, neuroscientists use beams of light to turn on and off neurons and could apply this approach to give sight to people who are blind, Olds says. “Their glasses would have a laser in them. The laser would turn on the proper neurons and replace their sight,” he says.
Other diseases could be ameliorated. “We hope to make a difference, even in something like Alzheimer’s disease, which right now is a death sentence,” Olds says. “Think of how AIDS used to be a death sentence and now is manageable. Imagine Alzheimer’s being manageable in some way. That would really be a magnificent achievement — not only for patients, but it would be positive for the economy too.”
Krasnow’s $1.8 million research imaging center, which houses a massive magnetic resonance imager, will be invaluable to the brain-mapping project. While the White House has thrown its considerable weight behind neuroscience, Krasnow and other notable institutions such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute with its Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va., Kavli Foundation and Salk Institute for Biological Studies are already at work.
“We can expect to achieve the ‘wiring diagram’ of a cubic millimeter of mouse cerebral cortex in the next couple of years,” says Olds, adding that the mouse brain is similar to the human brain.
Mason students can expect to play a role in the BRAIN Initiative.
“Krasnow has a lot of advantages over its sister stand-alone institutes,” Olds says. “It has a large and diverse university community where students are directly embedded in the give and take of high-intensity research. That’s typically not the case at all. You walk around this institute and there are students everywhere. Having students as a ubiquitous presence makes for an enriched education and, frankly, greatly enhances research productivity.”
The BRAIN project could find a way to build more power into increasingly smaller devices. Computer chips are in danger of literally melting, as anyone who’s had a hot laptop on their lap knows.
“We need to start looking at more powerful computers like our brains, which basically use the power of a 20-watt light bulb to run all the computations,” Olds says. “There’s something very efficient about our brains that could be practically reverse-engineered into our machines.”
Other new applications could follow, creating an economic boon. “Basically, as we learn more about the brain we’ll be able to comprehend how the brain is put together and use that knowledge to actually build better machines and improve our national competitiveness,” Olds says.
While other nations — China, Korea, Singapore and Europe — also are doing brain research, the United States has an advantage because of its tradition of “bottom-up, investigator-initiated” research. And Krasnow is in an even better spot because, unlike many other institutes, it’s part of a university and draws deep into other disciplines, Olds says.
Krasnow curates the world’s largest database of three-dimensionally reconstructed neurons at its 60,000-square-foot facility, Olds says, pointing to a sculpture representing actual neurons. Giorgio Ascoli, University Professor in the Molecular Neuroscience Department, created the database.
Neuroscience puts Olds on the road — he’s been to Singapore, Helsinki, Japan, Seoul and Beijing in the last year. “Neuroscience is an international effort,” he says.
But it’s all in a day’s work at Krasnow. “It’s the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had in my life,” Olds says.
Write to Michele McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org