“How do we make Pittsburgh a smarter city?” Dr. Susan Catalano repeats what she’s been asked. “That’s a good question.”

Let’s begin with the premise that we’re pretty darn smart as it is. According to Forbes, Pittsburgh stands number two in the country, behind brainy Boston with its Harvard-MIT corridor.

Like Boston, we’ve got plenty of college grads and world-class learning centers. We also wrote the book on moving from heavy industry to high tech, translating brain power into start-ups.

Still, economies these days are a moving target and to stay on top we’ve got to be smart—and get smarter. Luckily, there are plenty of smart people in Pittsburgh raising the bar for all of us. Here are five in various fields who are leading the way.

Jesse Schell of Schell Games. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Jesse Schell of Schell Games. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Jesse Schell, Chief Executive Officer for Schell Games

As Jesse Schell so memorably said in his presentation at Unboxed, an innovative retreat held by Leadership Pittsburgh for nearly 200 community leaders in November, “technology and the power of curiosity will drive the 21st century. The education we need starts where the learner is and goes absolutely anywhere and everywhere.”

Schell ought to know. As a creator of transformational educational games, and a Carnegie Mellon distinguished professor of entertainment technology, he believes we make Pittsburgh smarter by hooking kids early on learning—and keeping them engaged.

When it comes to games, Schell noted, “you put stuff in and it gives stuff back. Games give clear feedback and a feeling of progress.

“A huge part of what we do at Schell Games,” he says, “is change the way education works so that students can explore ideas in their own way. They can follow their own curiosity and make discoveries.”

Picking up a prototype of their new chemistry set, Schell manipulates a ball with rubber tendrils attached by magnets. “In schools,” he says, “they teach chemistry like algebra. When chemistry is really Legos. You snap atoms together and build molecules. Then you haul out your smartphone, take a picture of it, and send it to your app. Pow! you’ve found out that you’ve made oxyacetylene. Then you read what properties it has and what it’s used for. Kids learn through play!”

This kind of learning fits perfectly here, Schell believes. “Pittsburgh has so many self-educating opportunities,” he says. “Museums. Clubs. Centers. People need to take advantage of them.” See Schell’s video from Unboxed here.

Dr. Susan Catalano. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Dr. Susan Catalano. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Dr. Susan Catalano, Co-Founder, Chief Science Officer at Cognition Therapeutics

Dr. Susan Catalano’s research is aimed at making everyone smarter by saving all those minds and all that wisdom lost daily to Alzheimer’s, dementia and other devastating neurodegenerative diseases.

At Cognition Therapeutics, she and her team are working to find if not a cure, then a drug that will slow or stop the brain’s disintegration. “I’m absolutely thrilled to contribute to this work,” Dr. Catalano says. “It’s my sincere hope that we can find a cure for dementia right here in Pittsburgh.”

As chair of Women in Bio’s Pittsburgh chapter, Dr. Susan Catalano supports lifelong mentoring, training, partnering and employing women in the sciences, especially life sciences. “We put women scientists in front of young women,” she says.

Just back from a Girl Scouts outing at Carnegie Science Center, Dr. Catalano also had a hand in last September’s landmark POWER (Pittsburgh’s Outstanding Women Entrepreneurs Rally), where a dozen local women-led life science companies pitched to women investors. “That was the first time in the city’s history such a thing was done,” she says. “We need a woman-and-minority-owned business incubator. I look to helping make that happen.

“Pittsburgh is ready for the 21sth century,” Dr. Catalano adds. “We’re poised for explosive, double-digit growth because we have one of the largest concentrations of neurobiologists in the world. We’ll make Pittsburgh smarter by unlocking the vast potential of cutting-edge companies, especially in life sciences.”

Dr. Walt Schneider, Professor of Psychology, Neurosurgery, Radiology & Bioengineering, UPMC

Dr. Walt Schneider and his team are leading the way in groundbreaking work around traumatic brain injuries.

“From traumatic injury to Alzheimer’s, there are 10.4 million cases of brain connectivity disorders a year,” Dr. Schneider told the Unboxed audience in his presentation. “What we’ve done is develop the technology to see the wiring. We can track the breakage, make it visible and quantifiable. We can see what cable is broken and how badly.

“If you can’t see the problem,” says the former electrical engineer who has been featured on 60 Minutes, “you can’t fix it. Now we’re employing technology and images that were impossible to get just two years ago. We can see damage, quantify it, and show you what’s missing.”