Princeton’s Ilana Witten Receives a Director’s Pioneer Award From the National Institutes of Health

Ilana Witten, a professor in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, has been selected to receive a Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health. The award, established in 2004, challenges investigators at all career levels to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical, behaviora, or social science.

Professor Witten, an expert in the brain activity that underlies reward-driven learning and decision-making, will receive funding to study the fundamental question of what produces individual differences in behavior, a question often posed as nature versus nurture.

Dr. Witten and her team will investigate what produces individual differences in personality and in responses to stress. They suggest that nature, or one’s biological makeup, and nurture, or one’s environment, while both important, are insufficient to fully explain individual variability. In this new study, the team will examine the development of individual differences from the perspective of learning, proposing that small differences in the initial conditions of the learning system can be amplified by positive feedback to ultimately produce large differences in outcomes. The team will study how the brain chemical dopamine plays a role in this reward-driven learning, with the goal of explaining variation across individuals as well as in neuropsychiatric diseases.

Dr. Witten joined the Princeton faculty in 2012, becoming an associate professor in 2018 and full professor in 2021.

Dr. Witten is a magna cum laude graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in physics. She holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University.

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