The campus of the University of Rochester Medical Center is quieter than normal as social distancing continues – but the research and renowned education programs that have been a staple at the institution for 95 years are moving forward. The cultivating of future neuroscientists is engrained in the tradition here. Today, the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience serves as an umbrella for the cross disciplinary work being done at the University, while students get access to first-hand learning and are given a place to attempt to answer their own scientific questions. Dating back to 1925, the Department of Neuroscience – originally named Anatomy – was one of the five original basic science disciplines that could be studied at the Medical Center. It is a proud legacy for those who teach in the Department, and these professors are now just weeks away from welcoming the largest class ever accepted into the Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP).
“I think this reflects the many initiatives that have been put in place in the last few years to enhance training experience – the addition of new required and elective coursework, writing skills enhancement, mentor training – along with the really excellent research that has been done by our students and their success when they leave us to pursue their careers,” said Program Director of the Neuroscience Graduate Program Ania Majewska, Ph.D.
Among the incoming students is Evan Newbold, a graduate of Lafayette College with a degree in neuroscience and minor in aging studies. “The research at the UR is very closely aligned with my interests,” Newbold said. “There is a great opportunity to conduct work that can have a meaningful impact in the biomedical fields and, ultimately, address some portion of the unmet medical needs impacting our society.”
Victoria Popov will be Newbold’s classmate this fall. URMC’s culture and collaboration is much of what lead her to the university. “What interested me is the continued university-wide growth in neuroscience, commitment and support for diverse groups, including those who are D/deaf or hard of hearing, and the vast amount of opportunities there are to be involved in.”
Collaboration is invaluable for current students. “There are not many places where you can attend clinical rounds and your lab's journal club in the same day,” says 5th year Ph.D. candidate Humberto Mestre, M.D. Mestre has co-authored research papers published in prominent journals, such as Science. He was first author on a paper that showed the glymphatic system – normally associated with the beneficial task of waste removal – goes awry during a stroke and floods the brain, triggering edema and drowning brain cells. This work was conducted under the guidance of Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., and his experience in her lab has been an invaluable component of his education. In addition to working on groundbreaking projects, Mestre has been given the freedom to investigate his own questions, with guidance ready when needed. “These experiences have allowed me to learn how to navigate multidisciplinary collaborations and to see first-hand how powerful these collaborations can be in addressing fundamental biological questions.”
An opportunity to see research from a basic science and translational perspective has been a highlight of 4th year Ph.D. student Kathleen Miller-Rhodes' experience. Working in the lab of Marc Halterman, M.D., Ph.D., Miller-Rhodes’ research focuses on the interaction between the lung and brain following a stroke. “We are interested in understanding this dynamic interplay because clinical data suggests that lung injury can exacerbate neurological injury, and vice versa,” Miller-Rhodes said. “What is great about this project is that even though I’m a neuroscientist, I have had the chance to also learn about lung structure and physiology.”
Providing an interdisciplinary experience for students is intentional. According to Majewska, the program is designed to create an environment that welcomes other perspectives while studying the broad field of neuroscience.
At the helm of this work is John Foxe, Ph.D., director of the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience since 2015, and chair of the Department of Neuroscience. “From the onset, we have been focused on research and finding ways to better understand and find effective treatments for neurological disorders. It’s an exciting time in modern neuroscience and to cultivate new scientists at a world-renowned institution will only bolster the work being done, and forge a path to new discoveries.”
John Olschowka, Ph.D., came to URMC as a professor of Neuroscience in 1983. “In my 37-years here, John Foxe has heralded, by far, the largest growth and development in neuroscience at the university,” Olschowka said. “I think the quality of the faculty and the program that we put together here are key components to our success. And our graduate program has evolved a lot, especially in the last 20 years or so.” In that time, Olschowka and M. Kerry O’Banion, M.D., Ph.D., vice-chair of Neuroscience, combined their labs. With research focused on central nervous system neuroinflammation, the O’Banion-Olschowka labs use grant work to train students, but also look to students for new questions. “We tend to use the new directions they come up with as pilot data for our next grant. It is really their creativity that helps propel where we are going as a lab.”
That type of training trickles down to the undergraduate neuroscience program at the University of Rochester, which benefits from its proximity to the Medical Center. “Students are learning about neuroscience by actually doing it,” David Kornack, Ph.D., associate professor of Neuroscience, said. The brightest undergraduate students are cultivated by hands-on learning. Labs at URMC and the Del Monte Institute provide students with the unique opportunity to participate in research without a diploma. “They get to learn about the culture of neuroscience; they get to learn about the social aspects of being a scientist working in a lab with graduate students, technicians, postdocs, and professors. They have a tremendous opportunity.”
Students – both at the graduate and undergraduate level – benefit from the opportunity to be a part of a field that is accelerating our understanding of the human brain, at an institution with a rich history, and in an environment that nurtures lasting cross-disciplinary relationships. “My endeavors in research, professional development, and networking with a wide variety of researchers have been cultivated at URMC,” said Katherine Andersh, a 4th year student in the NGP. With research focused on the role of neuroinflammation in neurodegenerative diseases, specifically glaucoma, Andersh hopes in her final years of study she will be able to “identify potential targets that could be inhibited or activated to promote neuroprotection and prevent vision loss in glaucoma.”
“I am fortunate to be a part of research groups and around individuals that are as excited about science as I am,” 5th year NGP student Monique Mendes said. “The conversations are lively and challenging. I appreciate the diversity in opinions and approach to a scientific question.”
“I think it’s critical to bring new people into science,” Majewska said. “Science is really made up of new ideas of individuals who bring new perspectives. We’re positioned to do that because we really care about the students we bring in.”
Originally published in NEUROSCIENCE Volume 6.