Beyond the Brain
How the Brain Health Research Institute is helping transform the culture of Kent State.
By Dan Pompili
The Brain Health Research Institute (BHRI) may be a recent development at Kent State, but with fresh leadership, emerging partnerships and a refined vision, it’s well on its way to gaining national renown.
“The Brain Health Research Institute marks a major turning point in the history of Kent State as a research university,” says President Todd Diacon. “Just as the Liquid Crystal Institute was transformational more than 50 years ago and became a cornerstone of our research identity, I think years from now we’re going to remember the inception of the BHRI in the same way, as a transformational moment in the legacy of research at Kent State.”
New BHRI Director Michael Lehman, PhD, believes Kent State’s brain health research profile just needed a boost to earn its due attention.
“Kent State is in the midst of a major cultural transformation in terms of what the university is and how it will move forward,” Lehman says. “We have research strengths that extend into the social sciences, health sciences, arts and humanities, architecture, behavioral neurosciences, integrative-level biology and psychology—and those go beyond what exists at other institutions.”
Lehman came to Kent State in January from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, along with his longtime collaborator and wife, Lique Coolen, PhD, a renowned researcher who was named associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, with a focus on faculty research, professional development and postdoctoral affairs. They join more than 110 BHRI researchers across 30 departments and eight colleges, and they’ve built their careers on the BHRI’s underlying concept—what Lehman calls the “collaboratory.”
“We are committed to the idea that we want different points of view in research and education, not just from people who consider themselves neuroscientists, but also those who have an interest and are willing to work with others,” he says.
Concentrating the Research Focus
In February, Lehman convened the first BHRI faculty retreat, where KSU researchers discussed and summarized ideas about Kent State’s strengths and opportunities in brain health.
Lehman brought those ideas to the BHRI Executive Committee, which concentrated them into three “themes” of research focus, each encompassing various related specialties. [See below.]
“The Brain Health Research Institute marks a major turning point in the history
of Kent State as a research university.” — Todd A. Diacon, PhD, President
“We framed the research themes in keeping with our view that brain health is a window into disease, and linking basic discovery research with translational and clinical research,” he says.
As the BHRI grows, Lehman wants to attract researchers with track records of interdisciplinary work who may not fit neatly under traditional departmental labels.
“We want the best and brightest, and that’s not necessarily the best physicist or chemist or biologist, but somebody who can collaborate and contribute in novel, interdisciplinary ways.”
One such researcher will join Kent State’s Department of Anthropology in August: Rafaela Takeshita, PhD, from the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan.
“Dr. Takeshita will complement our ongoing research in neuroendocrinology and brain health in an innovative way, and I look forward to collaborating with her,” Lehman says.
Developing Trainees and Enhancing Programs
Research doesn’t stop with faculty. “If we talk about what grows research, it’s graduate students and postdocs,” Lehman says. “To have well-funded, productive labs, you’ve got to develop a strong cadre of trainees.”
One way to achieve that is by enhancing KSU’s graduate-level programming, including neuroscience PhD programs in the School of Biomedical Sciences, as well as in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Psychological Sciences.
“We want to enhance the visibility of our neuroscience training programs and expand our applicant pool,” Lehman says. “With all the new faculty we have here, as well as at NEOMED [Northeast Ohio Medical University] and our other external partners, there are many more research opportunities for students to choose from.”
“In addition, we want to increase our trainees’ success in being awarded external fellowships from NIH [National Institutes of Health] and NSF [National Science Foundation], as well as in competing for institutional training grants.”
This fall, Kent State also will add a new undergraduate major in neuroscience. “It’s going to be really attractive,” Lehman says. “No other institution in Northeast Ohio is offering that right now. We also are initiating a BHRI undergraduate fellowship program as a way of attracting the very best students, and we’re supporting Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) students this summer as a start to that.”
He says it’s important, though, to see the BHRI in context and concert with other exciting developments at Kent State. “The BHRI is part of a larger transformation for the university, and we see ourselves working together with other institutes and initiatives, including the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute and the Design Innovation Initiative.”
Collaborating with External Partners
The collaboration reaches beyond KSU. “The BHRI is a convener and a driver, but its success is only possible through partnerships that cross boundaries,” says Michael Kavulic, PhD, director of Research Strategic Initiatives. “One of our goals is to make sure all of our partners are involved.” Kent State’s external partners agree.
“NEOMED has two groups of neuroscientists working in complementary, overlapping and mutually-supportive areas with researchers at Kent State,” says Jeff Wenstrup, PhD, chair of anatomy and neurobiology and associate dean of research at NEOMED. “One is hearing research, which is a strong group that focuses on basic and translational work, from the ear to interpretation of acoustic communication signals. The other is in neurodegeneration and aging, and certainly there are Kent State researchers involved in that.”
“We are a university-wide program, and our goal is to raise all boats. Regardless of whether you are engaged in neuroscience research and education or not, you’re going to benefit from this.”— Michael Lehman, PhD, Director, BHRI
Leaders at Akron Children’s Hospital (ACH) see different potential. “It’s a natural collaboration,” says Michael Kelly, MD, PhD, chief research officer at ACH. “We have a large patient population that falls into the category of neurological disorders. We have a lot of information about patients, but not always about underlying disease. It makes absolute sense to partner with the BHRI to leverage their scientists’ strengths to better understand pediatric neurological diseases.”
Kelly points to existing relationships with KSU researchers. Douglas Delahanty, PhD, professor of psychological sciences, conducts trials and studies with ACH patients suffering from post-traumatic stress. Sonia Alemagno, PhD, dean of the College of Public Health, has coordinated with ACH on school-based interventions for children with chronic diseases.
Kent State has also joined the Cleveland Brain Health Initiative (CBHI), which offers the potential for many other symbiotic relationships.
“The CBHI includes a lot of clinical partners—University Hospitals, Metro North, the VA and others,” says Lehman. “It’s another way for us to connect with healthcare in Northeast Ohio and develop collaborative grants that can complement our expertise.”
Increasing Funding and Supporting Faculty Careers
Developing new programming and forging relationships is only the beginning, though, and many challenges remain.
“Moving beyond the silos of departments and colleges is formidable,” Lehman says, “but we are a university-wide program, and our goal is to raise all boats. Regardless ofwhether you are engaged in neuroscience research and education or not, you’re going to benefit from this.”
As with everything in higher education, he says, it all revolves around funding. “I can’t emphasize how important it is that we come up with support for new fundable projects and get those submitted and put them in the best possible competitive situation.
“The other piece to consider is how we ultimately measure success, and that conversation should take us beyond the normal metrics. We want to increase grant funds, productivity and faculty publications, but we also want to support faculty careers. We want to show that we are engaging faculty and giving them opportunities to grow in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise, and see people connect in ways they wouldn’t normally.
“BRAIN HEALTH AS A WINDOW INTO DISEASE”
Examples of Associated
BRAIN BASIS OF EMOTION AND COGNITION
• Brain wellness and mental health
• Learning and memory
• Reward and motivation
• Social behavior
BRAIN CONTROL OF MOVEMENT AND SENSATION
• Motor and sensory function in health and disease
• Special senses (hearing/vision)
• Spinal pathways, peripheral nerves and development
• Circadian rhythms
Post-traumatic stress disorder