A rich history and a promising future were at once center stage on Sept. 29 at the 8th Annual VKC Science Day, which this year marked the Center’s 50th anniversary as one of our nation’s original Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers.
Science Day Chair Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., set the stage as she opened the plenary session reminding the audience of President John F. Kennedy declaring, on signing the legislation to construct these centers, that “Once the mind of a man [was] a far country” but that it was now possible for our nation “to make the remote reaches of the mind accessible.”
Fifty years later, when the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities research includes the revolution in brain science, that vision is being lived out nationally and in the contributions of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.
The audience of over 200 faculty, students, and staff was welcomed by Tim McNamara, Ph.D., vice provost for Research, who spoke of trans-institutional discovery as one of the four foundational principles of Vanderbilt’s Academic Strategic Plan and praised the Center as a leading trans-institutional research center at Vanderbilt.
World-renowned neuroscientist Pasko Rakic, M.D., Ph.D., was the keynote speaker. He is the Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Neuroscience and Neurology, Chair and Professor of Neurobiology, and Director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale University.
His fellow neuroscientist and friend Karoly Mirnics, M.D., Ph.D., VKC associate director, introduced him: “Pasko—there is only one Pasko. There is no scientist who has contributed more to our understanding of cellular events and molecular mechanisms that govern development of the mammalian central nervous system.”
“Understanding human cerebral cortex is the most important scientific quest,” Rakic said, “so you—the Kennedy Center—are working on the most important thing in the world.”
Rakic’s career has been devoted to unraveling how such a complex cellular system has developed. His talk provided an overview of decades of his discoveries. “There is no simple solution to complex problems,” he said, so scientists must “have patience.” He concluded his talk with images of the “dynamic dance of neurons, seemingly chaotic but dancing in harmonious ways.”
A snapshot of the Center’s 50 years was captured as Mirnics moderated a panel with Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., VKC director since 2008, her predecessor Pat Levitt, Ph.D., director 2002-2008, and H. Carl Haywood, Ph.D., director 1971-1983. Donald Stedman, Ph.D., director 1970-1971, was unable to attend but contributed responses.
“What are you most proud of?” was Mirnics’ lead question to the panelists.
“People who make up the Center,” Dykens replied, “senior and junior scientists, its professional staff—the whole is greater than the parts.” Her concrete examples of moments of pride included seeing Next Steps at Vanderbilt students crossing the stage at their graduations, and ACM Lifting Lives Music Campers singing at the nationally televised Academy of Country Music Award Show.
Stedman was most proud of “being there at the beginning and making good progress on the three tasks that Nick [Hobbs, founding director] assigned me—to establish a working organization and a national advisory board and to begin the process of linking the Kennedy Center with Vanderbilt and its Medical Center.”
Haywood, who also was present at the Center’s founding, spoke of his pride at “nurturing tiny seeds–and preserving and extending relationships with NICHD and other NIH agencies, the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the State of Tennessee.”
He also spoke of “attracting stellar scientists and superb graduate students,” noting the contributions to the field nationally and internationally by graduates of the Peabody/VKC research training program on intellectual disabilities, which was funded by NICHD for over 50 years and preceded the Center’s founding.
Levitt noted that he was the first of the Center’s directors to be a neuroscientist. He spoke of the pedestrian bridge across 21st Avenue South as symbolic of the important connections he worked on forging between VKC neuroscience and social science researchers, “a bridge that goes both ways,” he said. He stressed “creating an atmosphere of scientific trust.”
“What were your biggest challenges?” Mirnics asked.
Levitt discussed the challenges of operating as an interdisciplinary center in a university organized by discrete disciplines, a challenge common to all interdisciplinary centers within universities.
Haywood, who was director at a time when the VKC was a part of Peabody College, spoke of the challenges of maintaining collegial relationships.
Dykens identified the challenge of needing additional resources in order to grow research, services, and training, especially the need for philanthropic resources.
More than 100 presenters–from undergraduate students to postdoctoral fellows—presented posters summarizing their research studies, sharing with peers and faculty. Posters were organized into three thematic areas, each with a theme chair who served on the Science Day Planning Committee. Themes and chairs, respectively, were: Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience, Christine Konradi, Ph.D.; Clinical, Behavioral, and Intervention Research, Tedra Walden, Ph.D.; and Systems Neuroscience, Sasha Key, Ph.D. Presenters who chose to compete and to receive feedback had their posters judged for a cash award. Fifty-nine VKC researchers volunteered their time as judges, providing presenters with an important experience for professional development.
The 2015 VKC Science Day poster competition winners were:
- Undergraduate Poster
- Scott Blain, “Music memory in youth with autism spectrum disorder”
- Clinical, Behavioral, and Intervention Research
- Graduate Level: Carly Blustein, “Pathways to integration: Improving vocational autonomy and social skills in the workplace”
- Postdoctoral Level: Sarah Baum, “Connecting individual differences sensory and cognitive function in healthy aging”
- Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
- Graduate Level: Amy Palubinsky, “Treatment with a novel molecule that promotes protein refolding increases neuronal survival following stroke”
- Postdoctoral Level: Jason Stephenson, “Physiological effects of an ASD-associated mutation in CaMKIIa”
- Systems Neuroscience
- Graduate Level: Justin Siemann, “Changes in serotonin signaling alter multisensory function in the mouse: Implications for autism”
- Postdoctoral Level: Antonia Thelen, “Electrophysiological correlates of performance variability in multisensory detection”
Abstracts for all Science Day posters presented are available for viewing on the Science Day webpage.
All poster presenters become VKC Affiliates and are eligible to apply for a VKC Travel Award to present their research at a scientific conference.
Responses to Science Day
Each year the Science Day Planning Committee asks participants to evaluate their experience to inform the next Science Day. Comments included:
- “I thought that the poster session was great and the discussion surrounding it was awesome! This was very well done.”
- “The keynote speaker was a wonderful surprise. Great communicator. His knowledge and experience priceless. The graduate students were confident and most of them had a great understanding of their projects.”
- “I very much enjoyed the Directors Panel. I thought having the opportunity to see where we have been and where we are going was unique and valuable.”
- “[I valued] the chance to be in the same room at the same time as so many great VKC colleagues and learn about their recent research!”
- “[I appreciated] the relaxed atmosphere in which people could have interesting conversations about scientific issues.”
- “The poster session is always the highlight and continues to be.”
Jan Rosemergy, Ph.D., is VKC deputy director and director of Communications and Dissemination.
Pictured top of page: Pasko Rakic. Photo by Anne Rayner.