Gerald Fischbach, Simons Foundation

TITLE: Chief Scientist and Fellow

CONTACT: gf@simonsfoundation.org, 212-337-3036

IP TAKE: Fischbach is a brain expert looking for talented researchers who have a deep commitment to studying autism but also have a willingness to get their toes wet in a neighboring discipline.

PROFILE: The Simons Foundation launched a new research program—The Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI)—in 2005 aimed at finding the cause of autism spectrum disorders and a treatment for them. Like all of Jim and Marilyn Simons's projects, the program would have to be a first-rate initiative with a first-rate director. So they wasted no time in locking in someone with credentials beyond question: Gerald Fischbach.

Fischbach, a Cornell-trained doctor, has spent his career studying the way the brain transmits information. His interest in research landed him a job at the National Institutes of Health and then tours at the world's most prestigious medical institutions: Harvard Medical School, Washington University School of Medicine, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Along the way, Fischbach became a respected expert in the brain's synapses, the gaps between neurons. His experience made him a perfect fit for SFARI. He joined the team as director in early 2006, and in May 2013 was elevated to the role of chief scientist for the whole foundation.

As the foundation’s chief scientist, now Fischbach oversees and contributes to all of the foundation’s scientific pursuits, which also include Life Sciences and Mathematics & Physical Sciences. He is also tasked with spearheading collaborative projects in neuroscience research advising the foundation in their newer Education & Outreach program.

This means he's not the point-person for any one granting region any more, but he does set the tone for all of them, so his history with the SFARI program can still be instructive. While running that programs, Fishbach first and foremost wanted to see high-quality scientific research. Second, he looked for researchers who are committed to work that's related to understanding their scientific field. And finally, he wanted people who are willing to collaborate, share information, and generally be a team player—no hoarding of results in search of personal riches or glory. To Fischbach, that approach is too common in scientific circles these days, and it is a recipe for failure. There's no reason these same "guidelines" wouldn't still apply, to Simon programs across the board.

"To succeed, one can't rely on the Renaissance scientist anymore. It's too complicated," Fischbach says. "Our hope is to form collaborations between scientists with expertise in different areas. But not collaborations where one takes a project up to a certain point and says, 'Now it's your turn, I'm out of it,' but true collaborations where there is a back and forth discussion to refine each approach."

Who's going to argue with someone of Fischbach's stature? If researchers are interested in pursuing work that syncs with the Simons Foundation's programming, and want to tap into their resources, they'll need to learn to play in Fishbach's sandbox.

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