Jeff Lichtman named dean of science 

Neuroscientist Jeff Lichtman has been appointed dean of science, effective July 1, by Hopi Hoekstra, the Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Lichtman, the Jeremy R. Knowles Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is a pioneering experimental neuroscientist who uses electron microscopy and computational reconstruction to study neural connections in the mammalian brain. One of his major research goals is to generate a complete map of the brain’s complex connective pathways.

“I am thrilled to welcome Jeff into this new role and to have him advancing the extraordinary possibilities of our academic community,” Hoekstra said in a message to the FAS community.

A member of the faculty since 2004, Lichtman said his strong desire for a prosperous and growth-oriented science enterprise at Harvard, as well as his personal and professional commitment to the institution, drove his decision to take the leadership role.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” he said. “Obviously it is a great challenge, but I like hard work.”

Lichtman was a founding affiliate of the Center for Brain Science, a University-wide coalition of researchers seeking new insights into neural circuits and how they translate to thought and behavior. Among Lichtman’s research interests is studying how mammalian brains are rewired during postnatal learning — the phenomenon that explains why the young often can learn complex tasks more quickly than adults.

Answering such questions led Lichtman and colleagues to develop visualization technologies for neural connections and for monitoring how they are altered over time. One of their inventions, the “Brainbow” method, uses fluorescent proteins in transgenic mouse brains to distinguish individual neurons from each other.

Recently, Lichtman partnered with computational neuroscience colleagues at Google, MIT, Princeton, and elsewhere to focus on the watershed challenge of creating a synapse-level wiring diagram of an entire mammalian brain. In this and other work, he brings together researchers from the life and physical sciences as well as computer science and engineering. 

Beyond his own research program, Lichtman serves as faculty director of the Harvard Center for Biological Imaging and is on the steering committees of the Center for Brain Science, the Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, and the Harvard Brain Science Initiative. He is also director of undergraduate studies in neuroscience and chair of the curriculum committee of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Lichtman came to Harvard after working for 30 years at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also did his M.D. and Ph.D. work (1980). He received his undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College.

He succeeds experimental physicist Christopher Stubbs, the Samuel C. Moncher Professor of Physics and of Astronomy, who assumed the role as dean in 2018 after an interim term. Stubbs will continue to have a leadership role in the FAS as special adviser on artificial intelligence to Hoekstra.

“Chris Stubbs has been an outspoken advocate for the division, a highly effective leader of FAS initiatives from pandemic scenario planning to pedagogical responses to AI, and a generous and collaborative partner to me in my time as dean,” Hoekstra said.

Lichtman also reflected on the changing landscape of scientific research and education in the age of instant, AI-generated answers. “Thinking about our educational mission, as dean, I’d like to explore not just how we can more effectively convey to our students the explosive growth in scientific knowledge, but also how can we better instill in them the essential importance of learning how to ask questions that don’t yet have satisfactory answers,” he said.

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