August 23, 2002

Neurogenomics training program draws on Meharry, Vanderbilt faculty strengths

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Randy Blakely, Ph.D.

Neurogenomics training program draws on Meharry, Vanderbilt faculty strengths

Vanderbilt University has received funding for a new Training Program in Neurogenomics — the first program in neuroscience to coordinate the training of postdoctoral fellows from both basic science and clinical departments.

“This program is unique in supporting and promoting interactions between traditional postdoctoral fellows and young clinical investigators in neurobiology,” said program director Randy D. Blakely, Ph.D., Allan D. Bass Professor of Pharmacology and director of the Center for Molecular Neuroscience. The hope, he said, is that the program will foster a cross-fertilization of ideas between basic and clinical neuroscientists and ultimately speed clinically relevant scientific discovery.

The five-year $1.4 million grant, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, will support six fellows each year in the area of neurogenomics — the intersection of neuroscience and genomics. The sequencing of the human and model organism genomes offers unprecedented opportunities for neuroscientists to discover the molecular cues that underlie brain development and function and how these molecules play roles in brain disorders, Blakely said.

“There is a suite of new genomic and proteomic technologies that is allowing us to investigate questions in neuroscience at a scale and at a level of resolution that we have not previously been able to do,” Blakely said. “The information that’s coming from these technologies though — from gene mapping, polymorphism screening, microarray studies — ultimately has to be understood in terms of the way molecules work, the way cells are built, and the way neurons coordinate their activities if we are to understand mechanisms underlying brain diseases.

“We hope the fellows in this training program will become the next generation of leaders, creating and exploiting the tools of molecular neuroscience in models of disrupted brain signaling, wiring, and behavior.”

The training grant targets an area that was highlighted by the National Institute of Mental Health’s Genetics Workgroup — the need to provide education in molecular and statistical genetics to neuroscientists, said Walter Goldschmidts, Ph.D., associate director for Research Training and Career Development at the NIMH. “It is the hope of this institute that this new training program will help launch a new generation of outstanding basic and clinical scientists dedicated to identifying genes that create vulnerability to mental illness, affect the course of illness, and impact treatment,” Goldschmidts said.

Faculty from Vanderbilt — both the Medical Center and the College of Arts and Science — and Meharry Medical College are included as potential mentors. The faculty mentors span the spectrum of genomic and neuroscience research. “The research programs of our faculty mentors mirror the underlying complexity of neuroscience research these days; though for this program, we’re still just focusing on molecular neuroscience,” Blakely said. “There are even more opportunities in imaging and cognitive neuroscience, for example, but I think this program is a great start.”

In addition to providing stipends for the postdoctoral fellows and access to advanced coursework to fill gaps in their training, the program will offer formal opportunities for interaction — small group meetings with both visiting seminar speakers and existing faculty, for example. “I’d like the program to be about more than just how these fellows get paid,” Blakely said. “I want them to feel like they are part of something unique, a special program.”

Four of the six trainee slots are targeted for beginning, nonclinical — typically Ph.D. — postdoctoral fellows, and two are reserved for clinical fellows seeking to obtain protected research time during a residency period. The program is currently seeking applicants. Blakely hopes that early success in recruiting fellows will prompt other NIH institutes with an interest in molecular neuroscience to fund additional slots in the program.

The new training program adds to Vanderbilt’s growing prominence in neuroscience research and training. The progression over the last 10 years has been remarkable, Blakely said. Elaine Sanders-Bush, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute, laid the foundation for training graduate students in the neurosciences by securing an institutional training grant in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience in 1992. That initial grant and the establishment of the Center for Molecular Neuroscience in 1996 led to the development of the Ph.D. program in Neuroscience. The program now includes both Molecular/Cellular and Integrative/Cognitive Neuroscience tracks.

Multiple training grants support undergraduate and graduate students as well as postgraduate trainees in neuroscience. Among them are two institutional training grants: ”Training in Fundamental Neuroscience,” an NIMH and NINDS grant that supports 10 predoctoral students, and “Alliance for Research Training in Neuroscience,” a newly awarded grant to the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance that will support five predoctoral and five postdoctoral trainees with an emphasis on minority trainees.

The new Alliance grant and an Education grant that supports the Summer Neuroscience Apprenticeship Program (SNAP) are part of a long-range vision of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance to create a center of excellence for minority training in neuroscience, Sanders-Bush said.

Vanderbilt and Meharry, individually and through the Alliance, are increasingly being viewed as special places for training in neuroscience for undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate scholars, Blakely said. “At the base of all of this growth is a strategic commitment by our institutions to lay infrastructure across traditional boundaries, evident on both technological and programmatic fronts.”