Brain Health Research Institute Director Reflects on His First Year
Michael N. Lehman, Ph.D., was named the inaugural director of Kent State University’s Brain Health Research Institute in January 2019. We asked him to share his thoughts after a year on campus and much activity within the institute.
Q: You have been director of the Brain Health Research Institute for more than a year now. You have survived two Ohio winters and have, no doubt, experienced your share of black squirrels. After a year on campus, share your thoughts on Kent State University. Has anything here surprised you?
A: Wow, it’s more like what hasn't surprised me! Seriously, I love being here. Kent State is a fantastic place and I am incredibly excited by what we have accomplished thus far as the BHRI and in planning for the future. The willingness of faculty, staff and students to step up and embrace a new vision of the university, and a culture of innovation, discovery and collaboration, has been wonderful to see, as has the exceptional support of our deans, chairs and other senior leaders including President Todd Diacon, Interim Senior Vice President and Provost Melody Tankersley and Vice President for Research and Sponsored Programs Paul DiCorleto. Finally, after seven years in Mississippi, I didn't realize how much I missed the snow and cold winter weather!
Q: You have worked diligently for the past year to form many partnerships for the Brain Health Research Institute. What have we gained from those partnerships?
A: Really many things. First, our external partners in academic medicine, NEOMED, Akron Children’s Hospital and Cleveland Clinic, have been actively engaged and communicating with us from the start in setting goals and planning our activities, with representatives serving on both our executive and steering committees. Our partnerships have notably included establishing new research collaborations that allow us to translate our basic discoveries about the brain into novel cures and treatments for brain disease.
We have established a monthly seminar series bringing national experts here that is co-organized with NEOMED faculty and have been an active participant in the Cleveland Brain Health Initiative with colleagues at Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals and other institutions. Finally, our partnerships include the relationships we have developed not only across the Kent State campus but also with faculty at our regional campuses – the overarching goal is to provide a bridge for all faculty and students to cross over traditional departmental and college boundaries and enable innovative, cross-disciplinary research. Finally, I would mention that we are constantly exploring connections across the region and the nation and that the strength of the BHRI is rooted in its ability to create an expansive and strong network.
Q: The university has planned for a new space in the lower level of the Integrated Sciences Building, where there will be room for great collaboration among disciplines. What can you tell us about the plans?
A: I’m excited about what we have planned for the lower level of the ISB. It’s going to be a different kind of space for research, specifically designed to bring together people from multiple disciplines to collaborate and think about brain function that hasn’t been possible before. For example, one component of the space, will be the creation of “collaboratories,” shared facilities that will encourage investigators from different backgrounds to bring their skills together to bear on key, unresolved questions about the brain and brain disease.
We have two collaboratories planned for the ISB basement, one focused on human neurocognitive research, the other on advanced microscopy to analyze circuitry in the whole brain. Both will have state-of-the-art equipment and technology to enable researchers to examine brain function in ways not previously possible. But the important thing is that the space will not belong to any individual or single department or college, and instead be a stimulus for multidisciplinary collaboration consistent with the name of the building, “Integrated Sciences”.
Q: After years of planning, Kent State launched a new undergraduate degree in neuroscience last year. How has that been received and how has it aided the BHRI?
A: The new undergraduate program has gotten off to a terrific start with 49 majors enrolled in its first year, and currently 60 incoming freshman who’ve expressed interest in it. With the help of Vice President for Enrollment Management Mary Parker we are developing a BHRI Undergraduate Fellow Program which will be an entry-level, two-year program focused on providing a mentored, research-intensive undergraduate experience in neuroscience. The goal is to enhance recruitment of highly qualified and motivated undergraduate students to KSU who are interested in neuroscience and pursuing related careers in academic or pharmaceutical research, healthcare or other science-related careers.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest success over the past year?
A: There are many tangible components we’ve developed to grow our focus on research and education, including our pilot grant program to spur exciting new research projects; our seminar series which brings national experts to share their research; our pipeline of research career development support; and our Town Hall Meetings and establishment of Research Interest Groups which bring together faculty with shared interests and foster collaboration in focused areas of neuroscience. But I would say the major success, and critical for all the above, has been the willingness of so many faculty, students and staff to participate in the institute and its activities.
Q: The BHRI is planning a large symposium on campus for later this year. Can you give us a sneak peek about what experts might be coming to the Kent Campus and what topics will be discussed?
A: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided to postpone that symposium to September 2021, which will give us even more time to plan. The event already is shaping up into a fantastic program on the topic of “The Changing Brain: Plasticity and Connectivity.” We will include a roster of world-renowned speakers from other institutions as well as BHRI researchers who are doing ground-breaking work in this area. The symposium also will feature a range of events designed for undergraduate and graduate students to enhance their professional skills and career development.
Q: Many don’t realize how much brain health research is ongoing at Kent State. Share with us some of the most exciting research going on in our own laboratories?
A: There are so many exciting projects going on, it’s hard to single out specific examples! I would start with the research of BHRI Associate Director and Professor of Psychological Sciences Dr. John Gunstad, who was recently awarded a new NIH grant to examine the feasibility of using automated speech analysis as a “digital biomarker” of risk for Alzheimer’s disease, since early detection is key in developing new treatments for Alzheimer’s. The project has tremendous potential to improve brain health for our community as well as addressing health disparities in this disease. There is Dr. Angela Ridgel, associate professor of Exercise Science and Physiology, who has been doing innovative research on the positive benefits of cycling exercise and movement training on motor function in individuals with Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. A recent faculty addition, Dr. Richard Piet, assistant professor of Biological Sciences, is using cutting-edge optogenetic and electrophysiological techniques to understand the brain circuitry responsible for fertility in animals and humans. However, there are many more examples of exciting work from BHRI members that expand our knowledge of the brain health and disease – please see our website for more https://www.kent.edu/brainhealth
Q: What recent developments in neuroscience worldwide do you find most intriguing?
A: The BRAIN initiative at NIH started by former President Barak Obama has yielded new tools that allow us to analyze brain function at levels not previously possible. This includes development of techniques at single-cell and whole-brain levels to probe function in an incredibly comprehensive and detailed way. The challenge now, part of phase 2.0 of the BRAIN initiative, is to apply those tools to understand brain health and disease in ways that expand our knowledge of both basic brain circuitry and its malfunction in disease.
To this aim, as part of our partnership in the Cleveland Brain Health Initiative, we are exploring opportunities for new, collaborative research that will take advantage of the unique talents and abilities at each of our institutions that we can bring to tackling those problems. In addition, we hope to leverage our close relationship with other Institutes and Initiatives at Kent State to spur research in new directions. An example is neuro-materials research in collaboration with Dr. Torsten Hegmann, director of Kent State’s Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute (AMLCI) and other AMLCI members, where the use of novel advanced materials in the analysis of brain function and treatment of brain disease and injury is an exciting frontier where we have exceptional expertise and research ongoing.
Q: We talk a lot about collaboration within the sciences and arts here. Can you share some of the most recent collaborations and their outcomes?
A: One of things that makes neuroscience here at Kent State so distinctive is the wide diversity of interests and faculty who consider brain health and disease a major focus of their work. This includes faculty in arts, humanities, and other fields, whose research has potential to yield insights into the operation of the mind and brain that are overlooked in more traditional programs.
One example is the research that Dr. Sara Bayramzadeh, Eliot Professor in Kent State’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design and BHRI member, is doing to improve the safety of Level 1 trauma rooms in hospitals based on how re-design of the physical environment can help prevent errors in human neurocognitive function and behavior. The work was recently a $2.4 million grant from thefederal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)and involves collaboration with other BHRI members in the College of Nursing and the Department of Psychological Sciences within the College of Arts & Sciences.
The fact that Kent State faculty in architecture recognize the important connection between their work and neuroscience, and are working with others in an interdisciplinary team, is a terrific example of how the field has expanded by attracting the interest of scholars and researchers in disciplines that might not at first glance be thought of as relevant to brain health.
Kent State contains many other examples of this, including collaborations with J.R. Campbell, director of the Design Innovation Initiative, and others involved in that initiative, for who understanding the brain basis of creativity is key, as well as a common interest in how we foster the process of innovation and discovery, as for the planned BHRI “collaboratories.”
Q: What are you most excited about for the future of the BHRI?
A: I think the BHRI, along with the other institutes and initiatives, is creating fundamental change in the way we work as a university, crossing traditional departmental and college boundaries and emphasizing the interconnections between research and academic missions.
I also think of us as an experiment in how we can work as a regional research network with our partners in academic medicine, to translate our discoveries to improve the health of our community and world. By promoting a culture of collaboration in both research and education I hope we can help redefine Kent State for a new generation and its future, and I am proud to be here to contribute to that transformation.
Q: How has the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affected you and other BHRI researchers?
A: Like our colleagues elsewhere, we are trying to continue and complete essential research projects as best we can, while at the same time paying keen attention to the safety and health of our colleagues, staff and families. For the BHRI, our staff and committees are continuing to meet regularly on-line, to plan for future seminars, our annual symposium, new collaboratories, our undergraduate fellow program and the next phase of our pilot research grant program.
As in-person scientific conferences across the world have been delayed or cancelled, we have also been directly exploring the possibility of more “virtual” meetings, conferences, and workshops in the future. Looking for a silver lining to the present situation, rethinking the way that we carry out our science and supporting collaboration in research and education can be a positive and a boon to us in the future as an institute and university.