Paying it Forward in Brain Research
Founder of FAU's Brain Institute Brings Wealth of Personal Motivation to His Mentorship Role
The 43-page curriculum vitae of neuroscientist Randy Blakely, Ph.D., founding executive director of Florida Atlantic University's Brain Institute, lists myriad honors, leadership positions, published research and patents, as well as degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in America.
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than Blakey's remarkable achievements in synaptic molecular biology, neurotransmitter transporters and human genetics is the story of the journey he has taken to become one of the world"s leading researchers in understanding the molecular basis of neuropsychiatric disorders.
A LUCKY BREAK
The youngest of five children raised in Columbus, Georgia, best known for Fort Benning, home of the U.S. Army Infantry School, Blakely has no memory of his father. When he was two, his dad — a 46-year-old active duty master sergeant — died. Throughout his childhood, no one told Blakely how it happened. The subject was never discussed and he intuitively knew not to ask, although he always assumed a heart attack was the cause.
Money was tight for the Blakelys. The high school serving their part of town was vocational, training many lower-middle-income kids like him to work in local businesses or factories. Many of Blakely's friends and members of their families worked in the local cotton mills.
"A few kids went to college, but not many," he recalls.
A stellar student, Blakely wanted to pursue higher education, but says he may not have soared academically without the mentorship of a teacher who saw his potential.
"In high school, I happened to fall, by great luck, into the hands of an amazing mentor," he said, explaining that he met English teacher Jane Bland after asking the school counselor to reassign him from a freshman general education business class. "I was bored and restless and, to make matters worse, the teacher slept regularly in class."
The counselor moved Blakely to a vocabulary class taught by Bland, whose course Blakely characterized as "a literary smorgasbord where we feasted on the origins of words and phrases from the ancient Greeks to the Bible to Broadway musicals to the New York Times Review of Books ... where (Bland) snuck in political and religious history and her own sly sarcasm about current events for dessert."
Blakely continued to take Bland's classes throughout his four years of high school. When he had gone through all the vocabulary exercises she could muster, she switched him to a study of the classics. He ultimately wrote his senior thesis on Virgil's Aeneid. Blakely graduated as class valedictorian, crediting Bland's mentorship with helping him become a National Merit Scholar and win a full scholarship to Emory University.
"Jane kept the bar high for me, something desperately needed," he said. "She encouraged me to work hard in all things I did, to be a critical thinker, but also to be compassionate and to value the minds of others."
As an undergraduate majoring in philosophy, Blakely discovered a keen interest in science, leading him to double-minor in chemistry and physics and to pursue research on how drugs affect behavior. A new field called neuroscience was burgeoning, and he knew he wanted to be part of it.
Blakely was accepted into medical school as a college sophomore but changed his mind after a summer job following graduation gave him time to reconsider what he wanted to do with his life. Research, he realized, was his passion.
He went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine followed by post-doctoral training at Yale University in molecular neuroscience a brand new discipline. At Yale, Blakely and his adviser, Susan Amara, Ph.D., were the first to clone the norepinephrine transporter, which, among other things, regulates mood and anxiety, attention and stress responses. This advance allowed Blakely and his colleagues to identify related genes, including the serotonin transporter gene. The serotonin transporter is the major target in the brain for drugs such as Prozac, "the first blockbuster drug for the treatment of depression." Blakely's work provided drug companies with a faster way to develop more selective antidepressant medications.
The young researcher's odyssey in neuroscience took on new meaning when he became very ill in college. When his doctor asked about the family history of heart disease, Blakely contacted his mother to get more details about his father's death. It was then he learned that his father hadn't suffered a heart attack, but had committed suicide.
"Then many things in the family made sense," said Blakely. He had witnessed his siblings suffering with depression and was later aware of suicide attempts. Blakely learned that his mother also struggled with mental health issues and had attempted to take her own life.
But he also knows that she fought to keep her family of five kids moving forward, despite limited resources and the stigma associated with his dad's suicide. "She is the hero in this story," Blakely says. He also credits the attention and love he got from his older siblings with flling the gap left by his dad's death.
Blakely's passion for understanding the human brain had become personal. The irony is not lost on him "that a person whose family has suffered from severe depression would actually identify the gene that Prozac acts on, or that I had developed a keen interest in the biology underlying mental illness, never thinking this was a major story in my own family."
A BIG NEUROSCIENCE TENT
In 1995, Vanderbilt University recruited Blakely, then 36, offering him an endowed professorship in pharmacology. He spent 21 years there in a succession of leadership roles that included serving as director of the Vanderbilt/National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Silvio O. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research, director of the Vanderbilt/NIMH Postdoctoral Training Program in Functional Neurogenomics, and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Molecular Neuroscience, with a joint appointment in psychiatry.
In May 2016, Blakely became the founding executive director of FAU's newly formed Brain Institute. He intends to help the University build "a top-flight research infrastructure to support neuroscience investigation across species and across the many levels of investigation that now drive brain research."
A professor in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, he's also excited about the opportunity to collaborate with The Scripps Research Institute and the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, both located on FAU's Jupiter campus. Florida, he said, is one of the most progressive states in terms of putting money into advancing neuroscience.
"My vision for this institute is a broad one, a big tent, and it runs the gamut from molecules and circuits in model organisms to studies of the living, acting human brain and the brain disorders that plague so many," he said.
Despite his accomplishments and professional stature, Blakely exudes humility and is always quick to note how fortunate he has been and to credit those who have mentored him along the way. He credits Professor Darryl Neill, still on the faculty at Emory, with introducing him to the impact that drugs have on brain neurotransmitter systems and giving him key research opportunities at a young age.
There are many others, all highly respected professors and researchers, with whom Blakely crossed paths with at Johns Hopkins and Yale and whose lessons were pivotal to his development.
But he never forgets Jane Bland, the high school English teacher in whose honor Blakely and his wife, Leslie, (his high school sweetheart and also Jane's student), created an award to encourage Jordan Vocational High School students to advance in their studies beyond high school.
"I have shared my love of Jane with my son and my graduate students over the years, letting them know how lucky I felt to have known her, how different my life would have been without her," Blakely said at Bland's funeral following her 2008 death. "She was a giant in my life, and in the lives of so many others. Jane indulged us, humored us, challenged us and guided us. I can't imagine my life today without the words she gave me, gave so many of us."
He's acutely aware of the impact that educators like Neill and Bland can have on their students — something he strives to emulate. "I never lose that perspective," he says. "Kids smarter than me are out there and just haven't had the luck I had. I've tried to stay aware of how even the simple act of talking to a student can flip a switch and make a difference."
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