Neuroscience Collaboration

After Aimee Franklin graduated in 2007 with a degree in biology from Southeastern University (SEU) in Lakeland, Florida, she moved back home to Alabama and took a job working for her father, who had to leave an Assemblies of God pastorate after a severe heart attack.

Franklin put her dream of becoming a physician on hold as she paid down school debt and socked away money for medical school by delivering newspapers with her father, starting at 2 a.m. Through hard times, Franklin says the soundtrack for her life became “It’s Gonna Be Worth It,” the tagline from an inspiring song by Rita Springer. Motivated by Galatians 6:9, the Texas worship leader wrote “Worth It All” as a testimony never to give up on God’s plan.

Just before leaving campus, Franklin agreed to take the entrance exams for graduate study in biomedical research at the urging of Debbie Hazelbaker, her SEU faculty mentor. With little to lose, Franklin applied to the prestigious University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) Graduate School, as well as for a highly competitive fellowship with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, ranked as the world’s fourth wealthiest foundation.

“Miraculously, I got accepted and I quit my paper route,” she says. But a defining moment lurked just around the corner. Could she be open about her Christian faith as a research scientist at a large secular university?

“I was interviewing with all of these researchers,” Franklin recalls. “One of them asked why I was going to graduate school. I said, ‘I felt called to do this.’”

The researcher asked who called her.

“I said, ‘I really feel like God has called me to do this,’” Franklin responded.

The interviewer wanted to know if she heard an audible voice.

“No, but doors keep opening and it’s something I’m very interested in,” she explained. The interview concluded successfully, and Franklin enrolled in the doctoral program in integrative biomedical sciences. She looks back on that moment as another open-door affirmation that she could follow Christ and excel in research science.

Across the next nine years, more doors opened. In 2009, Franklin began research with Lori McMahon, the renowned neuroscientist who in 2015 became dean of the 5,000-student UAB Graduate School. Under McMahon’s mentorship, Franklin discovered what has become her life’s professional passion: The human brain.

“Most of the other organs, we have them figured out,” she says. “We know so little about the brain. Everything you discover is something new. Everything is exciting.”

UNLIKELY COLLABORATION

In 2014, Franklin completed her doctoral degree and then in a leap of faith accepted a full-time faculty job back at SEU as assistant professor of biology after turning down a highly sought-after post-doctoral job in Washington.

Recently, she and McMahon announced a verbal agreement to create the first-ever undergraduate research lab at SEU, a university with one of the fastest-growing enrollments  nationwide. Nevertheless, it is extremely rare for a major secular research university to collaborate so significantly with a faith-based school, especially one tiny by comparison.

“At Southeastern, we want a faculty that develops solutions to real world issues and problems,” says SEU President Kent Ingle. “We have created an amazing research lab.”

Under the agreement, UAB will send mouse brain tissue to the SEU lab for research so that SEU will not have to keep live animals on site. Franklin expects that the lab will begin receiving tissue before 2017. The mouse brain has become a frequently used model for neuroscience research because there is similarity with human tissue in key aspects.

For Franklin, doing scientific research with undergraduates in a Christian university setting brings together more than she could have imagined as a first-year pre-med major at SEU in 2003. She now sees neuroscience as her mission field.

By doing research, she contributes new discoveries. By teaching undergraduates how to do quality research, she affirms that Christians who excel in math and science can do more than serve as clinicians or doctors on the mission field.

“In research, money is tight,” Franklin says. “You get a result in research and there are 15 next steps to take, but you only have money to do two of them. How do you pick? You’re going to make an educated guess. But it would be awesome to have Spirit-led people making these decisions.”

Franklin also has a commitment to local church leaders to help them understand the value of research science.

“In church, we always pray that God would guide the surgeon’s hands,” she says. “We don’t really pray for our researchers out there discovering the cures and treatments. Let’s start praying for our researchers that they be Spirit-led.”

McMahon says she is motivated to work with SEU because, “We don’t have the manpower to do everything we want to do.” She sees the arrangement as a win-win for students and researchers and is enthusiastic about working with her former student.

“Aimee is extremely talented, super-smart, and highly motivated,” McMahon says. “If given the resources to grow, she will do big things.” McMahon, a lifelong Catholic, endorses Franklin’s desire to bring faith and science into harmony.

“For those of us who are Christian and faithful, we can still do our science,” McMahon says. “Scientists do not have all the answers.”

GROWING FIELD

The larger context is that federal funding for brain science research is growing rapidly. For 2015, the National Institutes of Health awarded at least $5.5 billion in research grants. Hundreds of millions more in research is spent on brain disorders and diseases.

In 2014, NIH announced a new 10-year, “moonshot” plan to spend an additional $4.5 billion to create new tools for brain study. “It’s a new era of exploration, an exploration of inner space instead of outer space,” Cornelia Bargmann, a Rockefeller University neurobiologist said at the time of the NIH announcement.

UAB and SEU, through the two women scientists, will support research in three areas:

  • Fragile X syndrome, a rare inherited intellectual disability primarily in males, in which an area of the X chromosome is vulnerable to damage. This condition accounts for up to 6 percent of autism cases. Researchers are pursuing therapies to treat autism and intellectual disability using Fragile X as the model.
  • Major depressive disorder (clinical depression). About 3 million people per year are diagnosed with clinical depression. Some research will examine why post-menopausal women are more at risk than men for this disease.
  • Alzheimer’s disease. One area of study at UAB is how plaques that build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients may interfere with normal blood flow to brain neurons, a possible factor in memory loss.

SEU President Ingle says he expects Southeastern over time to grow its capacity to do top-level research.

“The bottom line is that education is about life stewardship and life-calling,” Ingle says.  “Southeastern can provide stewardship of calling whatever that calling is. We believe in divine healing. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to pray for someone to be healed and pray for a cure?”

In the words of Rita Springer, that kind of prayer is gonna be worth it all.

Source: AG News

Leave a Reply