Faculty Focus: Winter 2016
Professors Mimi Kao and Riccardo Strobino Join the School of Arts and Sciences
By Blake Coolidge, A17
This year, Tufts welcomed many new faculty members who bring a wide array of academic and professional experience to the community, including Assistant Professor of Biology Mimi Kao, and Riccardo Strobino, the Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor in Graeco-Roman and Arabic Traditions.
Assistant Professor Mimi Kao
Since she was a child, Professor Mimi Kao has been intrigued by animals and their unique adaptations depending on their environments. "I liked learning about how their bodies and/or behavior changed depending on the habitat," says Kao. "In college, I began to think about the neural basis of behavior, how the brain affects behavior and how behavior affects the brain."
Today, Professor Kao's research focuses on understanding vocal production and plasticity through studying songbirds, whose vocal abilities rival those of humans and are learned in a process similar to speech learning. "Both songbirds and humans have to hear the sounds of adults during a sensitive period early in life and then have to hear their own voice while learning to vocalize. Songbirds also possess specialized circuits in the brain to help them learn vocalizations," explains Kao. By examining a basal ganglia–forebrain circuit dedicated to singing, Kao and fellow researchers have identified mechanisms important for vocal and motor learning. They have gained insights about the contributions of these circuits to variability in vocal output, and ultimately about how cognitive and motor impairments result from disease or damage to these circuits.
In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences awarded Professor Kao and her colleagues the Cozzarelli Prize to recognize their contributions in the area of Biological Sciences. She has also given a TEDx talk, "What Songbirds Can Teach Us About Learning And the Brain," on the topic.
Kao has also worked in the field of optogenetics, which uses light to control brain activity. Optogenetics, she says, is a less invasive way to investigate brain function and has several advantages over more traditional ways of altering brain activity. "It allows that rapid transient activation/inactivation of specific classes of neurons as opposed to all of the cells in a brain region," she explains.
Kao earned her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and her master's degree in East Asian studies from Harvard University. She received her undergraduate degree in Human Biology and East Asian Studies from Stanford. She has held research positions at the Center for Integrative Neuroscience and the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at UCSF, as well as at the Harvard Medical School.
A guest speaker at many professional conferences and educational institutions, Kao has presented at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, International Congress of Neuroethology, and the Computational and Systems Neuroscience meeting. Her most recent talk at Columbia University was given as part of the seminar series for the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Program.
After working at a health and sciences college for over ten years, Kao is enjoying Tufts' intellectually diverse community and interacting with students pursuing all areas of academic study. "I am so excited about coming to an undergraduate and research institution that includes arts and humanities, an engineering school, and sports teams," says Kao, who is teaching Human Physiology next spring.
In addition, Professor Kao is eager to explore Boston and the outdoor activities that New England offers. She looks forward to biking the Minuteman Bikeway, and embracing the snowy winters with snowshoeing.
Professor Riccardo Strobino says his research interests originate in a deep fascination with languages—particularly Arabic, Greek and Latin—along with conceptual puzzles. The latter, he says, are the "the bread and butter of philosophy, and of logic in particular, that is to say the study of how arguments are put together, analyzed and evaluated." In studying multiple aspects of the transition of philosophy from the Ancient Graeco-Roman world to the Latin West and the Arabic-Islamic tradition, says Strobino, "I work with languages all the time and have to solve textual, historical, and philosophical puzzles in virtually every text I set out to read, which is great fun and involves a huge amount of detective work."
Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor
Professor Strobino joined the Department of Classics after a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge and a visiting lectureship at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught medieval and Islamic philosophy.
Originally from Italy, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, a M.Sc. in economics from Bocconi University in Milan, and a M.A. in philosophy from the University of Milan. His areas of specialization include the history of logic, ancient and medieval philosophy, and Arabic-Islamic philosophy, with a focus on Avicenna, one of the most prominent thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age.
Professor Strobino's research focuses on how key philosophical ideas about language, science and formal reasoning were developed and transmitted from antiquity up to the early modern era across different languages and cultures. He has published numerous articles and book chapters. His current project is a monograph on Avicenna's theory of science: Avicenna's Book of Demonstration: Logic, Metaphysics, Epistemology.
This past fall, Strobino taught Philosophy in the Greek, Latin and Arabic-Islamic Traditions, a course on the elaboration and transmission of philosophical concepts from antiquity to the Arabic-Islamic tradition and the Latin Middle Ages. This spring, he is teaching Ancient and Medieval Philosophy of Science, a course that investigates various aspects of pre-modern philosophy of science, and focuses on a fascinating text by Aristotle (the Posterior Analytics) and its medieval reception.
Strobino has been very impressed with the level of commitment of Tufts students and is happy to be constantly engaged in dialogue with them. He enjoys working with students of different academic backgrounds and interests, which he believes to be one of the most rewarding and enriching aspects of his job. "I am amazed," he says, "by their curiosity and interest in discovering unexpected connections between the past and the present."
Outside of the classroom, Professor Strobino enjoys photography, museums and wildlife — pursuits he tries to combine every time he has the chance to travel.