The year has cycled as it must, leaving us with lasting memories and presenting me with the annual opportunity to highlight the activities and accomplishments of the faculty, staff and trainees of the Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute (SNBI) in 2022. The bar set by the prior year’s developments was truly high, given the generous support for FAU neuroscience research, technology and education provided in 2021 by David and Lynn Nicholson and the Palm Health Foundation. As anticipated, our community of scholars surged forward with wind in their sails and opportunities realized. Enjoy this compilation of our progress.
BUILDING BRAIN SCIENCE
When the House of Commons was bombed in 1941, Winston Churchill urged rebuilding it just as it was before, noting “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” I’ve thought of this statement many times as the design of the new SNBI moved from the computer-aided design layout of architects to the physical embodiment of Race to Excellence, the ambitious 2015 Strategic Plan set in place by John Kelly, Ph.D., FAU President Emeritus. His bold vision challenged FAU to embrace cross-cutting opportunities for growth in key areas of emphasis, where FAU’s existing strengths in key thematic areas could move the university beyond its past expectations. One such area, neuroscience, was designated one of four “pillars,” a metaphor given structure with the launch of the FAU Brain Institute in 2016. In 2022, a $35 million commitment from the state of Florida and a $10 million gift by David Nicholson were realized with the completion of construction of the Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute building on the Jupiter. campus. As the new building began to take shape, I wondered how the opportunity would shape us. Would it drive us to appreciate new possibilities of multi-disciplinary science and drive discovery at the interface of disciplines and technologies, colleges and Institutes, as Race to Excellence envisioned? That’s certainly my hope, and commitment.
One sign that the new building is supporting interdisciplinary research can be seen in the multiple academic homes of the faculty who have already moved their labs into the building. Current faculty derive from both the Colleges of Science and Medicine, as well as the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, with the recruitment of faculty by other Colleges planned, and more on the way. Supporting these faculty and their labs are three critical research support facilities, one the vivarium resources of the Center for Brain Disease Modeling, another the Advanced Cell Imaging Core, and lastly the Neurobehavior Core. Together, these units create new opportunities for discovery in basic and translational neuroscience. Whether supporting our goals to see the brain in new ways or to model devastating brain disorders, these facilities offer faculty and their trainees the opportunity to capture the serendipities that arise when masterminds learn, share and discover, together.
The new SNBI facility provides nearly 60,000 square feet of space that can support both wet and dry neuroscience, typically thought of as designations for labs geared for biochemical versus computational efforts. With these seemingly distinct subdisciplines, however, just steps from one another, the opportunity for interdisciplinary research is enhanced and one example of how space can shape our science. Indeed, labs (and their collaborations) that use mathematical models to derive insights from high content data have grown commonplace, and may arguably be doing the most impactful research.
Neuroscience is the most synthetic of disciplines, drawing from the theories and technologies of virtually every area leading to the convergences seen in neuro-engineering, neuro-law, neuro-philosophy, and neuro-arts and the need for collaboratories, as we call our gathering spots within the building. If we play our cards right, FAU scientists will create as much as use these hybrid disciplines.
BRAINS, MINDS AND HEARTS
Few of us are untouched by brain disorders, either impacting ourselves, our families, or our friends by brain disorders. I know of what I write. In remarks I made to the FAU College of Science graduating class of 2022, I told in brief the story of my own family and its battles with mental illness, made most indelible by the suicide of my father shortly before my second Christmas. Sheltered from this horror, and loved, I lacked appreciation for where the visible strains in my family came from, until a simple question from a doctor checking on my family medical history asked me to provide more information as to my father’s “heart attack.” Tearful discussions with my mother followed, though I learned more about her than him. At 63, still know so little of his personal demons, though I saw these come to roost in my mother, my siblings and myself. One thing I know now, I am not alone. So many of us have the traces of malignant sadness, of madness, rattling around in our genes, minds and families. And we know that the world can stigmatize and avoid, compounding the problem. I told the graduates these things not to share my family’s struggles, but to help them realize, as direct as I could relay, that battling sadness can lead one down a path that can help others, and that the most tragic discoveries can lead to something amazing – just as it did for me in finding a career in neuroscience.
So, we now move forward into the new year with a space that can truly shape us. Shape us to be smarter, to enjoy new collaborations, and to give back to the community. The SNBI is also far more than a Jupiter effort and this shape must not be our prison. Institute-affiliated faculty and core facilities exist across the 100 miles that spans FAU campuses, from Ft. Pierce to Jupiter to Boca Raton to Davie, where amazing science and eager collaborators await. We invite all to visit our new facility and we challenge ourselves to not let the building become a silo. The Institute was born of a desire to remove barriers to discovery. We cannot — must not — let the new Institute building create new barriers to integration and shared experience. UF Scripps Biomedical Research and Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience provide immediate opportunities for collaboration and training. I am hopeful that our new Neuroscience Graduate Program, with its ability to seed shared discovery and networking across campuses, colleges and Institutes, will come to aid those of us more deskbound and campus-centric. FAU neuroscience will be the better for it, no doubt at all. Have a great 2023!
Randy D. Blakely, Ph.D.
Executive Director, FAU Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute
Director, Neuroscience Ph.D. Program
David J. S. Nicholson Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience
Professor of Biomedical Science, Charles E. Schmidt College of Science