Williams neuroscience project groundbreaking

For the past three years, a team of Williams faculty and students has been hard at work on a groundbreaking neuroscience project. Under the leadership of Betty Zimmerberg, a professor of psychology, and with the financial aid of grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the team has created an online neuroscience education program that utilizes three-dimensional computer animation. This is the first neuroscience educational tool to employ this kind of animation.

Zimmerberg said the original inspiration for the project was what she calls “the limitations of two-dimensional descriptions, whether they are hand-outs, blackboard drawings, or overhead transparencies.” The program brings these blackboard drawings to life with short computer animation clips. Though the team hopes to use the animation process to liven up a wide array of neuroscience, biology and psychology topics, their current work encompasses the narrower field of synaptic transmission and chemical messengers.

While the animations have caused a good deal of excitement, Zimmerberg is equally enthused by the program’s wide availability. “That’s the beauty of the Internet. Anywhere in the world someone can access the site and learn how the brain uses chemicals to transfer information and how psychoactive drugs work in the brain.” The website also enables students to view the material as they study for exams.

Although the project will not be completed until this May, it has already received a great deal of praise from around the world. Professors from England, Italy and the Netherlands have contacted Zimmerberg to inform her that they plan on using the site in their classes. Zimmerberg, herself, used the animations last fall and spring in introductory courses in neuroscience and psychology. The students’ response was very positive, according to Zimmerberg.

Work on the project began in June of 1997 and has involved Williams students from five separate classes. While students have helped write narratives for the web-site, the most grueling work has been creating the animations.

Joe Masters ’02, who is responsible for several series of the animations, explained that each object is formed in a preliminary program –-“kind of like molding virtual clay”— and is then laid out in a second program.

The objects are rotated, enlarged, morphed and then rendered by the computer. It generally takes nine hours to render a 25-second clip after two weeks of prepatory work. The project has 35 such clips.

Masters and Bobby McGehee ’02 will present the project to Society for Neuroscience this fall in New Orleans. The project can be found at http://www.williams.edu/imput/synapse/index.html.