CMBN Professor Travis Baker

Travis Baker Wins Scialog Award to Devise New Methods to Study High-Level Cognition

Travis Baker, Assistant Professor at Rutgers University–Newark’s Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience (CMBN), was one of 17 researchers recently awarded funding from the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement (RCSA), a foundation providing catalytic funding for innovative scientific research and the development of academic scientists.

Baker and two other fellow scientists were each awarded $55K to continue research on a proposal they developed as part of RCSA’s Scialog (“science and dialogue”) program, which fosters new collaborations via conferences designed to stimulate intensive interdisciplinary conversation around various scientific themes of global importance. Participants selected from multiple disciplines and methodologies engage in large- and small-group discussions, then form teams of 2 to 3 people to propose high-risk, high-reward research projects based on innovative ideas that emerge during these events.

The most recent conference, Scialog: Molecular Basis of Cognition, was held in Tuscon, Ariz., in October. Baker was one of 50 applicants chosen for the weekend gathering among 250 who applied, then teamed up with Psychology Professor Robert Wilson, of the University of Arizona, an expert in computational modeling, and Megan Peters of the University of California, Irvine, a professor of Cognitive Science, to develop a yearlong research project focusing on new methods of collecting data from subjects and formulating a computational model of higher-level cognition.

“With most cognitive research, people sit in front of a computer and respond to cues and do basic tasks by pressing buttons, but how do you create an experiment to record brain activity or other measures while folks do active tasks in the real world? This is what our project is about,” said Baker.

It was a nice feeling to just be selected to attend this RCSA conference, given the competitiveness and breadth of the applications.

Most cognitive research proposals take six months to write, according to Baker, but the Scialog organizers wanted the groups to write one in six hours.

“It was really exciting,” said Baker. “Bob, Megan and I had met earlier at the conference and hit it off, and our energy just flowed really well.”

By the end of the event, their project, titled, Beyond Computational Behaviorism: The Structure of Thought and Naturalistic Behaviors, was selected for funding. Only 17 of the 50 researchers attending the conference got the nod to continue their work.

RCAS’s Scialogs are multiyear initiatives focusing on an array of pressing scientific issues such as solar energy, time-domain astrophysics, bioimaging, zoonotic threats and negative-emissions science. The intensive weekend dialogue-and-team model, which Baker likened to “speed-dating, only for scientists,” encourages collaboration in high-risk discovery research on untested ideas through a series of group discussions. Baker and his team will participate in two more annual Scialogs as they see their project through and get a chance to develop new proposals.

This RCSA nod for Baker comes on the heels of a $2.5 million grant that he received last year from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to develop new brain-based interventions to correct aberrant reward processes that sustain substance-use disorders.

“It was a nice feeling to just be selected to attend this RCSA conference, given the competitiveness and breadth of the applications,” said Baker. “When our project was chosen for funding, we were all very excited. Nobody has done this—gone beyond the button-pressing—and so we're happy that we can get started on this idea now. It’s certainly the fastest grant any of us has ever written.”