MRN Moving into Neurosystems Engineering

One of the more interesting developments on campus this year is the growth and change at The Mind Research Network.

Technically MRN is an independent non-profit entity, located in Pete and Nancy Domenici Hall on the UNM north campus.  However, work at MRN is closely entwined with the university community; it hosts professors, many of whom hold dual appointments in UNM departments such as electrical and computer engineering, and is a laboratory in which 20 graduate students work with researchers.  There are also more than 100 undergraduate students currently volunteer at MRN; these students work with a principal investigator throughout the academic year.

Last spring MRN hosted the “Domenici Neuroscience Symposium on Neuroscience for National Security”  in Washington.  The purpose was to raise the profile of MRN in Washington D.C. and to let the public know that MRN is now doing research in neurosystems engineering in addition to its research into brain disorders.  MRN drew a number of speakers from industry and research entities and showcased MRN researchers in a variety of areas.

UNM worked with MRN to produce audio recordings of the conference.  Here’s a great chance to hear about everything from the latest research in Traumatic Brain Injury to new training techniques that may allow soldiers to quickly identify threats.  Just putting together the audio lectures was a fascinating experience.  It made me want to learn more about work at MRN.

Neuroscience for National Security

Normally this kind of research is done by individuals at various institutions.  MRN is trying to concentrate a group of researchers working in neurosystems engineering.

Financially, things are going well at MRN.  The non-profit corporation has over $75 million in active awards, about $10 million in pending grants, and several active applications for grants in progress.  Research collaboration with organizations like MRN is what makes UNM a more interesting place to be and lots of fun to write about.

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UNM ECE – We’ve Got Game

This morning, the UNM Electrical and Computer Engineering Department fired up its yearly Video Game Competition and review. Unlike other video game competitions, this features games that are designed and programmed by students in ECE Professor Pradeep Sen’s Introduction to Computer Graphics class.  Students in this class learn the basics of developing video games (usually for the Xbox platform) and for their final project they have to design and create a video game.

UNM Professor Pradeep Sen explains the ECE Department's yearly video game competition to Channel 13.

Students, staff and faculty then get to playtest the games at the end of the semester in a daylong game-o-rama.  The games are later judged, and awards and feedback are given out at the end of the evening.

This is the third year of the program by professor Sen, who came to UNM from Stanford, and is working to create a Computer Graphics program at UNM that mirrors the one he saw at Stanford.

One of the video games displayed at this year's video game competition at UNM

This year, many of the student groups worked with electronic artists to add better visuals and music to their games.  This is also the first year for the department to offer an advance computer graphics class at the same time.  Many of the students in this class took the intro class last year, and spent this class better refining the games they had created for this class.

After the semester ends, students are also encouraged to license their games and provide them to the greater public on Xbox Live.

I’ve attended each of the three competitions (I was one of the judges last year) and it’s been great to see how the program has grown and the variety of games being offered each year.  If you have time today (Thursday, Dec. 10) you should swing by the ECE building and check out some of the cool work these students have done.

– Benson

Declining State Revenues Paint a Grim Budget Picture

On August 14, the Legislative Finance Committee heard the latest revenue forecast for the state, and the news was not good.

A Woeful Revenue Picture

The state anticipates a revenue shortfall of about $433 million for the current budget year – the one that just began in July.  In addition, the revenues for the previous budget year did not come in as expected, so FY 2009 is suffering an approximate $309 million deficit.

So all told, the state will have to plug an anticipated budget hole of more than $700 million, which would easily wipe out the New Mexico’s cash reserves.  In fact, the hole has made it imperative for Governor Richardson to call state lawmakers into special session in October to fix the problem.

The budget problem, however, is a moving target.

New Mexico has been slammed with falling oil and gas revenues, but those are not totally to blame for the revenue deficit.  Most of the recent decline can be blamed on weaker income and sales tax collections, and a drop in corporate taxes – all symptoms of the economic recession that continues to plague the nation.

There are some small signs that the recession may in fact be receding, but its continued impact in expected to be felt for the next few years.  And as has historically been the case, it has taken longer for New Mexico to feel the impact of the downturn.  It will also take the state longer than most to fully recover.

What Does This Mean for UNM?

At the present time, it is likely the university will face a mid-year budget rescission of 3 – 5% or possibly more.  If there is a sliver of positive news in all of this, it is that the fiscal year is still young, so there is time to take action.  As always, the university’s primary goal will be to protect its core mission and the well being of our students.

UNM’s projected enrollment increases will translate into new tuition dollars, and most of that new money will go toward lessening the impact of the budget cuts.  The administration is also committed to researching all centrally held funds to determine unrestricted balances that may be available.

Decisions on how to deal with the budget cuts on the academic side will be left to the schools and colleges and administrative units.  The Provost and the Deans have already engaged in strategy sessions, and the Deans will in turn engage their department chairs.

Faculty governance groups, the Staff Council and student government are being called upon to participate in strategizing and planning for how the university will deal with the cuts.  Input will be sought from all campus sectors with the goal of finding the most sensible ways possible to cope with the reductions.  All of these discussions and input will need to come to fruition by mid-September so we don’t have a lot of time.

A Realistic View to the Future

There is a real concern among economists that revenues will continue to decline.  That means this is not a short-term deal and there will be no quick fixes.

This fiscal year’s mid-year rescission will more than likely be followed by lawmakers being forced to make further cuts in the state budget for 2010-2011.  If the sluggish revenue picture continues, more cuts could follow.

Barring an economic miracle, UNM must prepare for the inevitable.  It cannot and will not be business as usual.  Though final decisions will rest with the Board of Regents, President Schmidly, his senior leadership team and a committed campus community will be asked to provide the scenarios for their consideration.  All actions will be carefully considered and there will be close communication with the entire UNM community throughout the process.