US and Swiss Collaborations exploring new frontiers: the Brain and Space

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

27 September 2015

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a chance to view collaborations between our nations to explore frontiers that are key to our curiosity as well as our future well-being and for which I have deep personal interest and connections.

My personal connections:

The Brain:  Growing up, the brain was very central to my universe.  Here’s why:

  • One of my father’s first “jobs” as a neurosurgeon was to serve our country in Vietnam as an Army Major and physician.  I can’t even imagine the conditions under which he did his neurosurgical work there but those conditions and his work affected him for the remainder of his life.  Considering that I was born as a result of his return from Vietnam, by osmosis, I, too, was affected by his experiences there.
  • Throughout my youth, we had real skull models around our house that we used as toys – especially to gross out friends who’d come to visit.  Comically, as we lost our baby teeth, the skulls started to mysteriously gain more and more teeth.
  • In my father’s last few months before passing away, the only topic on which he could lucidly connect was neurology.
  • About 10 years ago, when I learned about efforts to improve the human condition through neuroscience, because of my exposure to the power of the brain throughout my life, I was immediately enrapt and got involved to advance the efforts of a world-leading early learning research and brain science laboratory.

Space:  Do you know what the 1st flag was that was planted on the surface of the Moon?  I was in utero when Apollo 11 landed and when a solar wind flag manufactured and designed by the Swiss became the first flag on the moon .  Who knows whether this was when the seed was planted for my future passion for space – what I do know is that, by high school, I was hooked.  Here are some of the moments in my life illustrating that connection:

  • Under the watchful eyes of Mrs. Thompson, my 7th grade science teacher, I created my first paper airplane and became obsessed with the question of how it flew – despite the non-traditional design.
  • That obsession turned into an engineering degree with a focus on aerospace and two summer college internships at NASA.
  • While my career path has not stayed in the Space realm, I have personally maintained my fascination and passion for Space exploration.

My visits:

The Brain: I attended a Brain Science Soiree with American, Swiss, and other global leaders in science, philanthropy and business.  It was the precursor to an event called the Brain Trust V – the 5th global gathering focused on the rapidly expanding field of brain sciences. Hosted at the new Wyss Center for bio and neuro engineering and sponsored by GE Ventures & the Wyss Center, I was humbled and honored to join this auspicious gathering. Note: I feel like I need to edit the line in Star Trek that says “space, the final frontier”.  Yes – space is a key frontier – but so is what is going on in brain science.

Being with these leaders brought home the depth of opportunity that exists with the 2 major global initiatives to understand the brain that are centered in our two countries.

  1. In January 2013, the EU launched the Human Brain Project to consolidate/gather the data from the many studies of the brain in order to build a more comprehensive model of the brain. The Human Brain Project was cofounded by Henry Markram at EPFL here in Switzerland
  2. In April 2013 President Obama launched The Brain Initiative:  As shared by the White House, “The initiative will accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.”

These two audacious complementary initiatives will propel us forward in understanding brain and nervous system development, diseases, disorders and more.  And dialogues like the Brain Trust ensure that the synapses stay lit up between our nations, our scientists, and our efforts to make the world a better place. Here are a couple of photos around the visit.

Space: And just the other day, I visited Ruag Space – a Swiss company that provides payload fairings for many of the rocket launches around the world (including the Ariane and Atlas rockets).  Hosted by CEO Dr. Peter Guggenbach and CTO Michael Pavloff, I saw the construction of coming fairings and met apprentices who were contributing to the efforts – including working on parts that will end up as a part of US missions.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a place to stowaway for me to finally realize my dream of going up in space ;-). I loved the answer one apprentice gave to my question of “how does it feel to know that your work will be going up in space?”  “It feels very special”.

Here are some of the pictures from this visit.

Between these two (and many of my other) visits, I continue to be struck by the reality of the philosophy that, in order to pursue the great opportunities and challenges we face in the world today, we need to work together!