Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Frost seeks to share neuroscience implications with policymakers

For C.P. Frost, evil is not an absolute. As a neuroscientist, he understands that a quirk in a person's brain may lead to what society deems criminal behavior.

C.P. Frost

Contributions aid student

Contributions from alumni and friends of the La Follette School helped to make it possible for C.P. Frost to pursue his dual degree in public affairs and neuroscience. "Making ends meet on a research stipend is challenging, and every cent counts," Frost says. "The donors' gifts have helped me get the head start I need to put all my energy into my academics, research and career."

Donations made to meet the challenge issued in 2007 by La Follette School faculty and staff contributed to Frost's support through the Alumni-Friends Student Support Fund. He also received a Clara Penniman Award and is the first student to receive support from the Doris J. Hanson Fund.

Clara Penniman, founder of La Follette School precursor Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, established the award in 1998. She died in 2009. Community leaders established the Doris J. Hanson Fund to honor the longtime Wisconsin public servant who died in 2006.

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Neuroscience-public affairs students featured in newspaper, October 12, 2010, La Follette School News

"It's not fair to say that criminals are simply evil," says Frost, who started the dual-degree program in public affairs and neuroscience in fall 2010. "A person may be mentally unsound because of a tumor, over-use of steroids or because his or her parents were unstable. We know these factors influence criminal behavior, which suggests we should question whether a legal system based on culpability is the best system. We might want to consider incorporating methods other than punishment to stop crime. Incentives and rehabilitation might work better."

Questions about good and evil and how — or whether — they manifest themselves in human nature are among those that attract Frost to the study of neuroscience. His desire to use science to influence public policy led him to the La Follette School to begin the six-year endeavor that results in a Master of Public Affairs degree and a doctorate in neuroscience. "The La Follette School and the University of Wisconsin–Madison offer the only curriculum based in policy and neuroscience that enables scientists to learn how to work with policymakers," he says.

The two fields of public affairs and neuroscience share an interdisciplinary emphasis. Public affairs includes political science, economics, statistics, sociology, social work and health. Neuroscience encompasses such fields as biology, psychology, computer science, mathematics, physics medicine and philosophy.

Computer science, for example, allows a neuroscientist to model neural networks, Frost says. Psychology focuses on experiments that explain how people think and operate. Philosophy — perhaps the most intriguing aspect of neuroscience for Frost — suggests the kinds of questions neuroscience researchers should ask. "Any human enterprise is on some level a neural enterprise," he notes. "Neuroscience is a way of understanding how people work, and the field is starting to ask the kinds of questions that matter."

Overall, Frost says, he is interested in human experience and why people act how they do. He came to neuroscience by way of genetics, having the good fortune to spend time in the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, a laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, as part of his high school's curriculum. The fast-changing nature of the field appeals to him: When the teacher for a high school genetics elective introduced the readings, she told them to cross out certain paragraphs — even though the material was only several years old, it was already out of date.

Frost graduated from Dartmouth College with honors in neuroscience in June 2010. His thesis studied the neural basis of musical cognition. During his first year at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Frost is taking public affairs and graduate-level neuroscience courses, such as on neurophysiology and neuroimaging techniques. A neuroscience research assistantship rotates him through three labs during his first year. One is looking at memory and consciousness; the second is exploring the neurological basis for when the human mind is in a resting state; the third is examining the neuropsychology and pathology of criminal psychopaths, and how they relate to the effects of brain damage. From these experiences, he will determine his dissertation research topic.

Frost has many ideas he would like to pursue in making connections between science and public policy. "We know more now about how people learn as their brains develop," he says, "which has implications for education policy. We can apply more sensitive tools and interpret more data, and devise better policy in order to make education more effective and more inclusive."

Implications also exist for mental health and related policies — "a generic insanity court defense may not make sense anymore" — and for policies related to older adults, as scientists learn more about the brain and memory and people's ability to work. "What we are learning could affect retirement and finance policies," Frost says. "Everyone knows neuroscience has applications, but my goal is to show it has implications."

For neuroscience to demonstrate those implications to policymakers, researchers must know how to operate in the political arena and share their findings and recommendations in a way that is accessible, Frost says.

"My goal is to take the discoveries and ideas that my field is producing at an unprecedented rate and make them available and accessible to the public, and to make policymakers aware of their implications, whether in terms of health, mental health, education, child development or aging," Frost says. "I want to champion the cause of science in the public sphere so that work that my colleagues and I do can have a meaningful impact on people's lives."

— updated October 14, 2010