Neuroscience department fosters passion for research and solutions for brain health
Collegiality and collaboration spur success under the leadership of Jennifer Bizon, Ph.D.
July 5, 2022 — Collaboration is key to creating a supportive and successful scientific community, according to Jennifer Bizon, Ph.D., chair of the department of neuroscience. This philosophy has been at the heart of the department since its founding in 1970 and has only grown in the five decades since. Neuroscience itself was born from many fields of medicine, Bizon said, and UF’s department was among the nation’s first to make it a specialty.
“We’ve always been one of the leaders in that space,” Bizon said. “UF is a fantastic place to be for neuroscience because we have tremendous strength and an amazing community of investigators who care about science. We’re passionate about discovery and incredibly collegial. It’s not siloed, and I think that’s really important.”
For decades, neuroscientists at UF have worked to identify mechanisms in the brain related to normal and disordered function. Faculty publish these findings in over 100 papers each year. In tandem with the department of neurology, the department of neuroscience ranks fifth among the country’s public universities for the most National Institutes of Health funding in the neurological sciences, according to the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research. Much of this research involves cross-disciplinary collaboration with clinicians and other UF departments.
One frequent collaborator is Michael Okun, M.D. ’96, a professor and chair of the department of neurology. Okun, a pioneer in the study and treatment of Parkinson’s disease, said every division in neurology has had active interdisciplinary projects with neuroscience, combining clinical and basic science expertise to better impact lives. This teamwork has furthered understanding of diseases and resulted in new therapies for strokes, epilepsy, dementia and more, he said.
“They’ve been such great partners,” Okun said. “It’s been an awesome experience because the neuroscientists here are not only some of the best in the world, but they’re also really fun and creative. They challenge us, and we challenge them.”
Advancing research is not the only passion for Bizon and other leaders in the department of neuroscience; educating the next generation and fostering an inclusive environment are also top of mind. Since Bizon arrived at UF in 2010, the ratio of women to men in all levels and ranks within the department has improved to nearly 50:50.
The department hosts over 100 neuroscience students each year who train in Ph.D., M.D./Ph.D., in person master’s degrees or online master’s programs. Every summer, the department hosts a robust, 10-week training program for undergraduate students who travel from all over the country to learn in UF labs and to complete professional development training. One goal of the department, with a particular focus on inclusion, is to promote the next generation by coaching and mentoring students who will pursue neuroscience careers. About half of the students selected for the summer program are from underrepresented groups and smaller universities, many without advanced neuroscience research opportunities.
“We really want to diversify the research workforce in our field,” Bizon said. “It’s critical to help develop that next generation of neuroscientists who are just as committed to advancing the understanding of the brain.”
Benoit Giasson, Ph.D., vice chair of education, is one faculty member devoted not only to overall student development but also to championing members of his own laboratory. His students and trainees are taught a broad curriculum of neuroscience fundamentals, which will provide them a toolkit for a liftetime of learning and access to a broad range of career paths.
Every year, Giasson takes pride in the impactful and provocative research generated by trainees in his laboratory. Just last month, one of his students, Giavanna Paterno, published a paper in the journal Acta Neuropathologica Communications. Her paper had major implications for pathobiology and was a critical reassessement of the distribution of tau, a neuronal protein in the adult human brain.
If you ask Giasson about the highlight of his career, it won’t be the life-changing discoveries or the even the professional awards. He will instead talk about his students and tell the story of a handmade Stanley Cup replica trophy named the “Golde Cup,” in honor of Todd Golde, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of the UF Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease. His lab students won the coveted trophy, which was custom-made of old lab equipment glued to a bucket and then painted silver by Matthew LaVoie, Ph.D., co-director of the CTRND.
Giasson believes laboratories should be happy, fun, enjoyable places to be — true communities.
“Nobody works here, we just have a lot of fun,” he said while grinning. “We spend a lot of hours here. Having a really good environment matters in that context. You want to be with people who want to be here.”