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VUMC’s Baganz honored by Society for Neuroscience

Nov. 12, 2015, 9:16 AM

Nicole Baganz, Ph.D., was recently honored by the Society for Neuroscience for her outreach efforts on the impact of mental illness on patients and their families. (photo by Joe Howell)

Nicole Baganz, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Pharmacology, is a neuroscience outreach whiz.

She has blogged and written about neuroscience and the impact of mental illness on patients and their families. She has presented neuroscience lessons at yoga studios. She has coordinated social media for the National Alliance on Mental Illness annual walk — and has organized the largest team for the event.

Most recently, she has connected Vanderbilt neuroscientists with Nashville’s music community in a “Music and the Mind” symposium featuring a performance by singer-songwriter Ben Folds.

For her contributions to public communication, outreach and education about neuroscience, Baganz received the 2015 Next Generation Award from the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) at the organization’s annual meeting last month.

“I’m completely honored and thrilled,” Baganz said. “I’m excited that the award gives us the opportunity to provide more outreach efforts through the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and the local SfN chapter.”

The Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, one of more than 150 local chapters around the world, nominated Baganz for the Next Generation Award.

Only two Next Generation Awards — one at the pre/postdoctoral level and one at the junior faculty level — are presented each year.

“It is quite an achievement to receive this award,” said Kevin Currie, Ph.D., associate professor of Anesthesiology and Pharmacology and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter.

The award included an honorarium and travel award for Baganz to attend the annual SfN meeting and $2,000 to the local SfN chapter to continue outreach efforts in the coming year. Baganz will be joining the chapter’s leadership committee as outreach coordinator.

“I’m looking forward to sitting down with the group to brainstorm creative ideas for outreach,” she said.

“With Nicole’s passion and ability to simply get things done, we have high hopes that the Chapter will become a hub for some of these outreach efforts,” Currie wrote in the nomination letter.

Baganz became a neuroscientist — and found her way into education and outreach — because of her younger sister’s struggle with mental illness and death at age 18.

“Watching what my sister went through, what my family went through … I thought there has to be something we can do to help alleviate the pain — and offer empathy — to people suffering from mental illness and to the families suffering along with them,” she said.

Baganz found healing in writing. Her candid, journal-style prose won the nonfiction award in the 2011 House Organ writing contest at Vanderbilt, and its publication opened the floodgates of people wanting to talk to her.

“The reaction to the House Organ article was an awakening to me,” Baganz said. “People wanted to know more about the brain, and they wanted accurate information,” she said. “I enjoy letting them know that scientists are people with our own stories and that we really want to help.”

The success of the “Music and the Mind” event has spurred multiple speaking engagements for Baganz, and plans for additional outreach events that will continue the dialogue between neuroscientists and the music community. The goal, Currie said, is to capitalize on music as a tool to better understand the brain and to improve quality of life.

Baganz has facilitated a new association between the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and the Music-Heals Project, a California-based non-profit research foundation dedicated to “raising awareness of the healing power of music.” She is helping coordinate an upcoming Music-Heals Project “Symphonic Suite for Healing” performance, starring Mike Garson, on April 21, 2016, at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

In the midst of all of her outreach activities, Baganz is also a successful basic science researcher working with Randy Blakely, Ph.D., Allan D. Bass Professor of Pharmacology.

She studies how inappropriate immune system activation outside the brain can affect serotonin function inside the brain and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

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