Q&A: Grass Foundation President Matt McFarlane
Matt McFarlane is the president of the Grass Foundation. A former Grass Fellow (class of 2000) and Trustee since 2013, McFarlane has long been inspired by the Foundation’s work to expand opportunities for science and support individual scientists. After conducting academic research in neuroscience at Brown University, Stanford University School of Medicine, and New York University School of Medicine, McFarlane changed careers and went on to receive a JD degree from Fordham University School of Law. As an attorney, he has sustained his connection to science through a broad-ranging patent litigation practice, as well as advisory and leadership roles in nonprofit organizations like the Grass Foundation, reflecting his broader commitment to fostering a just, informed, and culturally rich society.
Neuroscience Quarterly (NQ): Can you briefly share the origin of the Grass Foundation and why it focuses on neuroscience?
Matt McFarlane (MM): After meeting in the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School in 1935, Albert M. and Ellen R. Grass built the Grass Instrument Company, known for its high-quality electroencephalography (EEG) instruments. The company thrived on Albert's engineering acumen and Ellen's scientific expertise, catering to the growing needs of neurophysiologists around the world for high quality amplifiers, stimulators and recording equipment. In 1955, Albert and Ellen founded The Grass Foundation to institutionalize their commitment to progress in neuroscience, primarily through the Grass Fellowship Program at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. These origins are the roots of the Foundation’s decades-long tradition of fostering an environment ripe for inspiration, innovation, and discovery.
NQ: Given the numerous challenges and needs facing neuroscience, where does the Grass Foundation feel it can meaningfully make a difference?
... the Foundation will continue to serve the community by creating opportunities to identify and support remarkable people.
MM: Throughout its history, the Grass Foundation has consistently focused on direct support for exceptional people as the primary driver of positive change in neuroscience. All of us associated with the Foundation embrace the purposeful commitment to provide opportunities for promising people to perform “good science,” believing those people will then continue to create excellence in neuroscience more broadly as their careers unfold. This approach brings with it an inherent flexibility to adapt to a changing environment. The Foundation’s longstanding support for neuroscience in Latin America, its investments in physician-driven neuroscience research, and more recently, its outreach programs and support of people from groups underrepresented in neuroscience all work to drive a “multiplier effect” by seeding new sources of creativity and innovation within the field. Extraordinary people have been and will continue to be the fuel that makes the engine of neuroscience thrive, and the Foundation will continue to serve the community by creating opportunities to identify and support remarkable people.
NQ: With those programmatic priorities, what programs does the Grass Foundation support?
MM: Our flagship program is the Grass Fellowship Program (GFP). Since its founding in 1951, the GFP has invited over 400 early career neuroscientists to perform independent, original research at the MBL. The GFP is a unique opportunity to spend an entire summer at one of the world’s most dynamic and interactive scientific hubs, conducting research in close quarters alongside an extraordinary collection of early career scientists. A key component of the GFP is the Alexander Forbes Lectureship that invites a highly accomplished senior neuroscientist to spend time with and advise the Fellows for a portion of the summer. In addition to our flagship program, the Foundation has long supported two advanced neuroscience research courses at the MBL.
More recently, the Foundation has supported outreach programs aimed at expanding access to neuroscience. We initiated a series of workshops using inexpensive equipment to introduce faculty at under-resourced institutions to low-cost principles and methods for teaching neuroscience, both domestically and internationally. We have also supported inclusive mentorship workshops to expose students from historically underrepresented groups to neuroscience with a culturally relevant curriculum. Recognizing the relative lack of programs specifically focusing on the retention and promotion of diverse postgraduate scientists, in 2021, we created the Henry Grass Rising Stars in Neuroscience Award. The award helps close the diversity gap in research by recognizing the innovative work and participation of underrepresented populations during the period between receiving their PhD and gaining tenure-track employment. Taken as a whole, the Foundation remains very interested in broadening societal participation in and appreciation for neuroscience.
NQ: The Grass Foundation and SfN have a longstanding partnership. What initiatives do you work on with the Society and why?
At least six trustees of the Grass Foundation have also served as SfN president, including our Life Trustee, Bernice Grafstein.
MM: Our connection with SfN is both longstanding and deep. Soon after the SfN’s founding in 1969, the Grass Foundation funded several programs that strengthened the Society’s influence and convening power. An example is the Traveling Scientist Program. Starting in 1972, this program provided individual neuroscience chapters with funding to invite a prominent scientist to interact with its local members, helping to spread access to neuroscience more widely across the country for the 30 years it was in place. Other examples are the Albert and Ellen Grass Lecture and the Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience, both of which have been fixtures of the annual meeting since the 1970s. At least six trustees of the Grass Foundation have also served as SfN president, including our Life Trustee, Bernice Grafstein. Through the years, the Foundation has supported a variety of SfN initiatives that each have the common feature of elevating and empowering people in neuroscience to change our community for the better. We look forward to continuing our partnership with SfN to create more broad impact in the field — for example, providing support for the Society’s effort to develop and administer programs offering professional skills training to early career neuroscientists.
NQ: What are you most excited about when you think about the future of the Grass Foundation?
MM: The Grass Foundation has always been drawn to experimental neuroscience and will continue its support for science illuminating mechanistic explanations for animal behavior and adaptation for survival. The Foundation is eager to continue collaborating with amazing organizations like SfN, and to create new relationships to bring more benefit to the community. But as we near our 70th anniversary, I am most enthusiastic — and proud — that the Foundation’s vision is as vital as ever, and we will continue to support extraordinary people capable of creating transformative change as the next generation of leaders in neuroscience.