Assistant Professor Jessica Black is breaking new ground with colleagues from across the nation for a new area of inquiry: neuroscience and social work. An educational psychologist with postdoctoral training in neuroscience from the Stanford University School of Medicine, she is one of a small group of pioneers to concentrate her career in this space. Black firmly believes that neuroscience is a critical component of any social work training, and thanks to her leadership, BCSSW offers its students the option to complete a certificate in this cross-disciplinary inquiry.
More than just building a program at BCSSW, however, Black hopes to construct a new field between these spaces; this fall, she and the BC School of Social Work hosted a first-of-its-kind research symposium entitled Intersections: Social Work and Neuroscience. The weekend event’s convening topic, The Brain in a Social Context, drew attendees from MIT, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, George Mason University, University of Utah, Columbia University, NYU, University of Connecticut, Smith College, Boston University, Brandeis University, UMass Boston, Wheelock College, University of Pittsburgh, and Boston College.
“This was a groundbreaking symposium, synthesizing the urgent humanitarian mission of social work with cutting-edge advances from cognitive neuroscience in understanding the human brain,” said John D. E. Gabrieli, the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. “It was a great success as researchers and practitioners in social work openly exchanged ideas and findings with neuroscientists. I felt honored as the keynote speaker to have the opportunity to begin this path-breaking and important new dialogue.”
The symposium was designed to foster the kind of collaboration underlined by Gabrieli by providing a novel space for attendees to share their scholarship, with the end goal of developing ensuing shared research questions that could be approached in partnership in the future. While acknowledging the realities of coming from different disciplines with different lexicons, participants also began to develop concrete ideas for how to implement viable projects to address these research questions. Already, plans are being made for joint social work/neuroscience studies between Intersections participants (we’ll update you in this space as these partnerships are made public).
“This symposium was a great example of how we need to begin to think in academic research, that the notion of going it alone, of remaining siloed in our own disciplines, is no longer the paradigm for success,” said Thomas Chiles, Vice Provost for Research and Deluca Chair of Biology at Boston College, who also provided a keynote address. “It was a huge success, and the fact that leaders in their fields came to BC for the weekend from all over the country says a lot about Professor Black, the School of Social Work, and also, the credibility of Boston College on the whole.”
The symposium’s successes also say a lot about the potential for a fresh space in academia, explains Black:
“We saw, this weekend, that developing something new is possible. And we saw, in all the dynamic conversation that occurred, that there is significant and profound overlap between our fields. And, this is perhaps most exciting: We saw that this overlap occurs along a dual path of influence, from neuroscience to social work, but also, from social work to neuroscience. We both possess the kind of expertise to drive innovative collaborative inquiry moving forward.”