Kenan Professor John Milton Receives NSF Grant

Dr. John G. Milton, M.D., Ph. D, Fellow, Royal College of Physicians of Canada, Fellow, American Physical Society and the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Computational Neuroscience at The Claremont Colleges, has received a $319,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support his research on the motor skills associated with stick balancing. Milton’s internationally known research on this deceptively simple topic has yielded important insights into how the brain controls expert motor skills, research that may prove essential as the population ages.

While conducting groundbreaking research into the causes of falls among the elderly, Milton became interested in how the brain loses expertise in an area. He decided to study the problem from another angle by studying the process of mastery. Stick balancing, says Milton, is essentially the same problem as trying to maintain balance while walking. The question, he says, is: “How does one develop expertise in the performance of a difficult motor skill?” Learning the answer to this question will help researchers interested in how we learn and forget skills, and how to teach those skills.

This is Milton’s second NSF grant; previously, with Professors of Mathematics Art Lee (CMC), Mario Martelli (CMC), and Lisette de Pillis (HMC) and Greg Dewey, Dean of Faculty at Keck Graduate Institute, Milton received $429,878 to establish the Research Experiences at the Biology-Mathematics Interface (REBMI) program at The Claremont Colleges.

By researching the challenging motor skill of balancing a stick on the fingertip, Milton has gained important insights into the nervous system’s “secrets” for developing expertise. “One of these secrets,” says Milton, “makes use of random movements of the fingertip: random hand movements are able to correct a stick’s wobbles far faster than a person would be able to react to seeing them. A second secret is to decrease the role of conscious efforts to make corrective movements analogous to the waiter’s trick of not looking at a bowl of soup while carrying it on a tray. Thus there is more to stick balancing than just poise and sharp reflexes!”

The grant will make it possible for Milton, whose appointment is with the Joint Science Department of Claremont McKenna, Pitzer and Scripps colleges, to bring together an international team of scientists to work with undergraduate students in research related to stick balancing and the nervous system. “The motion science and research are integrated in a manner that both excites and motivates students while at the same time teaching them to work effectively in international teams,” says Milton.

He explains that there are three major advantages offered by the study of stick balancing: “First, the motor task is sufficiently difficult to allow identification of levels of expertise; second, it is well enough characterized to permit careful comparisons between observation and prediction; and third, expertise can be dramatically increased with just a few days of intensive practice.”

The stick balancing research promises to have many practical applications, opening up new ways of understanding how the body develops expertise and coordination. “Since proper balance control is essential for the expert performance of many motor tasks,” says Milton, “we anticipate that studies of stick balancing will translate into the design of more efficient teaching, coaching and neuro-rehabilitative strategies.”

The William R. Kenan, Jr. Professorship was established in 1977 by a gift from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust to Claremont University Consortium to benefit all the undergraduate Claremont Colleges. The professorship was established to support a professorial chair of distinction at CUC to honor Mr. Kenan and to support and encourage a scholar-teacher who will broaden the learning process and make an effective contribution to the undergraduate community.