Paris Center Stories: Professor Alfredo Spagna, Psychology Department

June 20, 2022

For the first time, the Paris Center is hosting a six-week program in neuroscience. Led by Professor Alfredo Spagna, the program gives students hands-on experience working in the laboratories of the Paris Brain Institute. Learn more about Professor Spagna, the summer program, and its accompanying public conversation series in the interview below.

Tell us about yourself: what do you do at Columbia? 

I'm a lecturer in psychology and also serve as the director of undergraduate studies for the Neuroscience and Behavior major, which is a combined major between the psychology and biology departments. Before coming to Columbia in 2019, I was a post doctoral researcher in Jin Fan’s Lab at Mount Sinai hospital and Queens College, CUNY. 

How did the summer program in Paris come about?

I worked at the Paris Brain Institute (ICM) for a couple of years during my postdoctoral studies because I wanted to work with Paolo Bartolomeo, MD, one of the Principal Investigators. So I had extensive contacts at the ICM.

The program is called “Hands on Consciousness”. It's a Global Scholarship Program, awarded by the Office of the Provost, which gives Columbia University Faculty the opportunity to add international components to their regular courses. My students signed up for my regular consciousness seminar in the Spring semester, and then have an extra six weeks in Paris for the hands-on portion of the course at the ICM. Classes are held Monday through Thursday mornings; and the rest of the time students are invited to develop their hands-on portion of the program by working at the ICM lab where they meet with faculty researchers and other students. 

A very special aspect of this program is the formal connection between the ICM and Reid Hall that we established together with the Undergraduate Global Engagement curriculum office. It wasn't easy because there were lots of details to be ironed out between these two big-name institutions. Our goal was to have a written agreement giving students access to the hospital and to the laboratories, along with specific duties, weekly meetings with researchers, and a project to be redacted. It’s our first year and the students are really enjoying it, but it's also a big challenge.

The neuroscience students at the Louvre

Will the program continue next year? 

We hope so, it all depends on student interest and, of course, resources and funding. So far we’ve more than achieved the learning objectives of the agreement. Since this is the first neuroscience course at Reid Hall, we want to see how things go and if we have any additional needs in terms of budget and time for the next program. 

Conversations on consciousness series

How does the Conversations on Consciousness series tie into the classes?

One of the learning objectives of the course is to have students visit another country in Europe that has scientifically different approaches to research questions than the US. I wanted students to be in a lab and learn about other methodologies, new fields of research, and also to grow as individuals. Students come to me with questions about working at a lab, but this is a one-on-one, student to researcher approach. 

Another portion of the program is made of the Conversations in Consciousness, events open to the general audience, which highlight the latest research on consciousness science. This constitutes an invaluable opportunity for our students and for attendees to make the experience of learning about research in a more horizontal environment. I call them “conversations”, rather than “conferences” on consciousness because the idea isn’t for researchers to show us their slides and talk over them, but to have a conversation where we have 90 minutes to really come up with ideas for new studies or talk about old studies. We scientists tend to hide behind our slides, but the goal is to have the audience not being an audience anymore and the speaker not being a speaker anymore, but rather just being people talking about what consciousness is, and how we study this thing that is in front of us and, at the same time, somewhere else.