Human activities are altering the environment at an alarming rate. Local stressors, such as contaminated water and urbanization, and global ones, such as climate change and ocean acidification, are combining to accelerate the rates of degradation. To understand the complex interplay between molecular, cellular, and behavioral responses by organisms under these stressful conditions, a multidisciplinary approach is essential. The nervous system is the interface between an organism and its environment making neuroscience a critical discipline in understanding how organisms respond to change. The Puerto Rico Center for Environmental Neuroscience (PRCEN) combines neuroscience and environmental science to tackle these critical environmental issues in Puerto Rico’s ecosystems.
The Center is formed by an alliance between neuroscientists from the Institute of Neurobiology of the UPR Medical Sciences campus, and environmental scientists from the Departments of Environmental Science, Biology and Chemistry from UPR Río Piedras. The Center promotes integrative approaches that combine the ecology, biology and chemistry of four interconnected Puerto Rican ecosystems (marine, estuary, terrestrial, and freshwater) with state-of-the-art research into the molecular/cellular neurobiology of organisms living within those habitats to create a novel field that requires participants to move outside of their comfort zones and learn about entirely new areas of research.
To help guide our efforts we have enlisted renowned external scientists, some as collaborators, and others as advisors. Strategic partners include the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, the Research in Science and Engineering program at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of Washington, California State University Northridge, University of Guam, and Texas Tech. All of the partners have committed to faculty and student exchanges to foster future collaborations. We also join forces with local organizations that monitor environmental change. The US EPA’s San Juan Bay Estuary Program (SJBEP), the Caribbean Coastal Ocean Observing System, and the Institute for Tropical Ecosystem Studies, which runs the Luquillo site of the NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research Network, are active partners. The most important participants will be the undergraduate and graduate students who will conduct the research. Unlike their mentors, who were trained in traditional scientific disciplines, we want Puerto Rican students to be among the nation’s leaders in applying integrative approaches to solve environmental problems. Local expertise, proximity to a wide variety of tropical ecosystems, and partnerships with existing student support programs, put us in a good position to see this goal through. As we create this new approach we will encourage greater minority participation in science and develop strategies for increased retention, graduation, and enrollment in graduate programs. The PRCEN will create a truly interdisciplinary program that will engage and benefit the students, researchers and citizens of Puerto Rico.