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Design, discovery intersect at Salk Institute

Holed up in his Pittsburgh lab, Jonas Salk was close to discovering the cure for polio when he hit a mental road block. So, he went on a retreat in the monastery town of Assisi, Italy and absorbed his natural surroundings. Following that trip, the formula for the vaccine was clear as day.

“He attributes the environment to getting that breakthrough moment,” said Alison Whitelaw, co-founder and president of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. “He thought there was a connection between the quality of the environment where someone was working and their intellectual clarity.”

That link between design and discovery is the basis of the San Diego-based nonprofit, which is hosting an inaugural conference from Thursday to Saturday to discuss how the human brain interprets and responds to the built environment.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies will appropriately host the event. Salk built the picturesque research building with visionary architect Louis Kahn in 1965, borrowing the aesthetics that helped him discover the vaccine 12 years earlier.

Perched on the shores of La Jolla, the concrete, open air structure has opened the scientific minds of several Nobel Prize winners.

About 150 attendees, representing 12 countries, are expected.

The goal of the annual conference is to inspire ideas and new collaborations that will ignite, change and unlock the potential of neuroscience for architecture.

“We are trying to look at all aspects of the quality of the environment,” said Whitelaw, senior principal at Platt/Whitelaw Architects Inc. “The visual impact, how much light comes in, what the acoustics are, the scale and proportion.”

One keynote speech from neuroscientist Rusty Gage, called “Do Changes in the Environment Affect the Brain?” will explore the finding that people can grow new neurons in their brains and an enriched environment can promote that growth.

The nonprofit, founded in 2003, is funded through a mix of donations, the American Institute of Architects and corporations.

At the conference, representatives will announce the academy’s new research grant program, which will fund projects and foster interdisciplinary careers that combine the two fields.

Some classes about the topic are taught at downtown's NewSchool of Architecture and Design, where the nonprofit is headquartered.

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