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BCSSW Symposium Explores Social Work-Neuroscience Collaboration


By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Oct. 15, 2015

A groundbreaking symposium hosted earlier this month by the Boston College School of Social Work could foster closer links between the fields of social work and neuroscience, according to the event’s primary organizer.

“There are so many potential avenues for social work and neuroscience to work together, in research, training, education and other areas,” said symposium chair BCSSW Assistant Professor Jessica Black, interviewed last week. “To our knowledge, there had never been a formal opportunity for professionals representing these disciplines to meet and discuss their common interests. We felt that having a small-scale symposium would be a good beginning.”

Twenty-four scholars, researchers and educators attended the symposium, “Intersections,” held Oct. 2 and 3, where they participated in full and small-group discussions and heard keynote speakers, including Vice Provost for Research and Academic Planning Thomas Chiles and Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist John Gabrieli – in whose cognitive neuroscience lab Black worked as a doctoral student at Stanford University. 

Black’s research integrates neuroimaging, standard neuropsychological behavioral testing, and environmental measures. She and her colleagues believe that the brain data can be used to develop improved methodologies for detecting and treating certain psychological behaviors and conditions in children at risk for school failure.

It is this model of blended disciplines that Black and other symposium participants hope can be replicated on a larger scale.

“The idea was to first get a sense of everyone’s backgrounds and interests, and the emerging research questions in social work that might have relevance in neuroscience, and vice-versa,” she said. “That set the table for discussions on linking the two fields, and for small-group sessions to match up people with similar areas of research. 

“The final part of the symposium concerned implementation and future direction: What will collaborations, training, research papers and other activities look like? There was a lot of interest in having another event, and in broadening the conversation,” said Black, who has started a special-interest group on neuroscience-social work research in a national professional society.

BCSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi added, “Social work has for a long time claimed to have a biopsychosocial lens without really paying too much attention to the ‘bio’ part of that perspective. Taking into account how our brains develop under a variety of circumstances adds great value to our understanding of human behavior in the social environment. I firmly believe that intersections between neuroscience and social work will lead to important new insights for both disciplines and I am proud that our own Jessica Black is taking a leadership role in this new area of study.”

Read a feature story on Black’s research in the current edition of BC Social Work Magazine.