Twenty Years On: The OHSU Neuroscience Graduate Program Celebrates a Milestone

March 12, 2013NGP 
Pioneering graduate program has grown into a top tier training ground

For Gary Westbrook, M.D., Dixon Professor of Neurology in the School of Medicine and co-director of the Vollum Institute, it's a basic axiom: A top graduate program and outstanding science are obverse sides of the same coin at an academic institution like OHSU. You cannot have one without the other. And the OHSU Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP) Dr. Westbrook has directed since 2008 has evolved by most measures into one of the best in the country in the 20 years since its inception.

The NGP was the first interdepartmental graduate program to be launched at OHSU. Its stature has grown as studies of the nervous system at a multitude of centers at OHSU have deepened and as leading neuroscientists at the Vollum and other OHSU departments have won worldwide recognition.

The NGP's more than 150 faculty members cover nearly the entire spectrum of neuroscience, which has become increasingly multidisciplinary. Their research pursuits in most cases don't neatly fall into any one subdiscipline and their laboratories are distributed across a wide array of departments, centers and institutes: the Vollum Institute, Jungers Center, Oregon Hearing Research Center, and Papé Family Pediatric Research Institute Center. Or they are based in the School of Medicine's clinical and basic science departments, at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC), the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET) and the Portland Veteran's Affairs Medical Center.

Currently there are 43 students in the NGP. Six to 10 new students are accepted each year from a pool of applicants that has grown progressively larger as the NGP has gained prominence. "Of the 120 to 130 neuroscience programs in the United States, the NGP ranks in the top tier," says Dr. Westbrook.

A high-quality graduate program is vital, he asserts, because without it talented younger faculty – the science stars of the future – who rely on graduate students to help them in their labs will go elsewhere and eventually first-class applicants to the graduate program will as well. Senior scientists, by contrast, are often in a better position to recruit postdoctoral trainees to their labs. In short, a first-class graduate program produces the feedstock needed to keep the engine of scientific research running.

Dr. Soderling was the NGP's godfather

The founder of the NGP was Thomas Soderling, Ph.D., now professor emeritus and senior scientist at the Vollum. For nearly two decades before arriving at OHSU, Dr. Soderling had been a professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt Medical School. He also was an investigator with the prestigious Howard Hughes Institute. In 1991, attracted by the work being done in neuroscience at OHSU which he regarded as "clearly the strongest discipline at OHSU" at the time, he moved across the country to Marquam Hill and the Vollum Institute. He was surprised to learn when he arrived, however, that OHSU had no doctoral program in the neurosciences. He volunteered to initiate one.

NGPAn umbrella Ph.D. program that would draw faculty from a variety of departments was a new idea for OHSU and, initially, not a particularly welcome one. "There was significant resistance from a few departmental chairs who feared that the NGP would take away limited financial resources from their programs," Dr. Soderling recalled. The NGP – with the critical support of Richard H. Goodman, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the Vollum – ultimately got the go ahead in 1992.

Fears that the program would bleed off support from other programs proved unfounded. Funding for the NGP then and now has come primarily from the Vollum and two NIH training grants, supplemented by support from the School of Medicine. One training grant in neuroendocrinology, headed by Dr. Goodman, has been a mainstay from the start. Another in neuronal signaling written by Dr. Soderling provided funding for the first 10 years. Another broader institutional training grant under Gary Banker, Ph.D., professor of cell and developmental biology, subsequently took its place. In fact, basic science departments have benefited from the NGP since many of its students end up working with basic science faculty.

Dr. Soderling and the neuroscience faculty designed the NGP and created the basic curriculum, which required three basic neuroscience courses and three lab rotations the first year ending with what Edwin W. McCleskey, Ph.D., who succeeded Dr. Soderling as director in 1996, described as "an unusually rigorous qualifying exam." Dr. McCleskey, now scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute overseeing affiliated investigators in 300 labs across the country, added a three-week introduction to neuroanatomy but otherwise maintained the existing NGP structure.

Dr. McCleskey credits the structured coursework, the tough written exams and the scope and diversity of the faculty for much of the NGP's success during his tenure in attracting many of the best neuroscience students. Its success was due in large part, he said, to the presence of strong and very different communities of neuroscientists at the Portland VA Medical Center, Neurological Sciences Institute, CROET, Vollum Institute and various basic science departments in the School of Medicine. Together, he said, they were stronger than the sum of their parts "because neighboring faculty complemented each other and collaborated so much."

Peter G. Barr Gillespie, Ph.D., took over as NGP director after Dr. McCleskey's departure in 2002. He was succeeded six years later by Dr. Westbrook, who reviewed and reorganized all aspects of the core NGP courses. "It was clear that some course topics were presented in too much depth whereas other important topics were not covered at all," said Dr. Westbrook. A course on cellular neurophysiology, for example, was broadened to cover cellular neuroscience and a course on cell and molecular neurobiology was reformulated into three modules: cell biology of the neuron, neuronal signal and neural development.

For much of the NGP's history Liz Lawson-Weber has been its administrator. She is "organized, down to earth and so accessible," said Dr. McCleskey. "That kind of administrator is probably the most important single person in any graduate program."

westbrook2Core strengths

The NGP's core strengths are in the biophysics of ion channels, receptors and neurotransporters; cellular neuroscience; gene regulation in the nervous system; neuronal signaling; synapses and circuits; sensory systems and neuroendocrinology with increasing strength in developmental neuroscience and the mechanisms that control neural development; and disease-oriented neuroscience research.

A unique course initiated in 2006 by Dr. Westbrook on the neurobiology of disease is now part of the core curriculum and is proving to be a particular draw for NGP applicants. It introduces students to neurological and psychiatric disease mechanisms from the basic science end of the spectrum to translational research and clinical trials and exposes them to patients and clinical settings. The idea, Dr. Westbrook says, is to give doctoral trainees enough working knowledge about disease mechanisms to see how the work they do in the lab may be relevant. "That connection is a key to turning some students onto disease-related research and can produce a gold mine of scientific knowledge."

The volume of applications to the NGP has doubled in recent years reflecting not only the NGP's stature but Dr. Westbrook's outreach efforts. These included a complete overhaul of an outdated NGP website to provide a comprehensive look at the program and the careers of its graduates. Electronic brochures are now transmitted to college students expressing an interest in neuroscience on the Graduate Record Exam and to undergraduates in neuroscience programs around the country.

It takes most NGP students five to six years to complete their formal coursework, lab rotations and independent research in a mentor's lab, all of which culminates in a written Ph.D. thesis and oral defense. As much as 85 percent of graduates have gone on to postdoctoral training before launching careers in academia, industry or other science-related endeavors. 

The graduates: "creative, thoughtful, successful"

The first contingent of students arrived in 1993; the first Ph.D.s were awarded six years later. And more than 90 students have earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience since the inception of the program. NGP graduates have achieved success across a wide gamut of pursuits. Allison Fryer, Ph.D., associate dean for Graduate Studies, commented that the NGP has grown into one of the strongest graduate programs at OHSU. "It stands out not only for its rigor but also for the creative, thoughtful and successful scientists that it produces."

NGPNGP graduates are research scientists at academic institutions running their own labs. They are scientists in the biotech industry. They are science writers, high school and college science teachers and patent attorneys. And one is the director of a study on the potential effects of a space journey to Mars on the body.

Here are a few of their stories:

Rebecca P. Seal, Ph.D., one of the first NGP graduates, is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine running her own lab. Her focus is on identifying circuits, synapses and molecules that transmit chronic pain and on the role of forebrain cholinergic circuits in cognition and motor function. The NGP provided her, she said, with the right mix of rigor and congeniality.

Christopher D. Fiorillo, Ph.D., another early graduate, has circuited the globe. He did postdoctoral training at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and later at Stanford. He now is an assistant professor at the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology – "the MIT" of Korea – where his research addresses neural information processing, combining computational principles with neurophysiological and behavioral analyses.

Jason Christie, Ph.D., who graduated in 2004 and then did postdoctoral training at OHSU, now heads his own electrophysiology lab as a group leader of synapse physiology at the Max Planck Florida Institute. Dr. Christie says he didn't appreciate all that he had learned at OHSU until he was on his own professionally.

NGPDan Beacham, Ph.D. '01, works in medicine's coming revolution: genomics and biotechnology. He's a Senior Staff Scientist at the Eugene, Ore., campus of Life Technologies, where he develops high throughput screening and gene delivery tools that support research in drug discovery, cellular analysis and neuropharmacology.

Sonal Das, Ph.D., got her degree in 2005, completed postdoc training at the University of Washington and then decided that she wanted to apply her scientific background in a way that would allow her to think about the big picture. She is now a senior associate director at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research in New York where she is part of a 16-person team that directs funding and research programs that span the translational pipeline – from discovery through clinical trials.

Jennifer Ngo-Anh, M.D., Ph.D. '06 has another-worldly job. She's the Head of the Human Research Unit at the European Space Agency and has previously served as programme manager of the Mars500 Programme. The Mars500 programme locked six "marsonauts" in a simulated spaceship near Moscow for 520 days – the time it would take to fly to Mars, complete 30 days of Mars-surface exploration and return to Earth – in order to study the effects of isolation and confinement on the human body as well as psyche.

"We have to stop thinking about science Ph.D.s as being only academic scientists," said Dr. Westbrook. "We're doing a lot more to help students look at career options and to help them think about what's next. I like the fact that we're spreading people into a lot of different areas where science experience is the key. It's a credit to the program."


This article was written by Harry Lenhart

Photo credits: (In order from top down)

1) Annie Logan learning neuroscience lab techniques in the Jungers Institute's Banker lab as part of the annual NGP Bootcamp

2) NGP students Carolina Glogowski, Chia-Hsueh Lee and Dominic Siler during NGP Bootcamp in the Vollum Institute's Williams lab

3) Gary Westbrook, M.D.

4) Jeannie Hunnicutt presents her scientific poster to NGP students, Pierre Apostolides and Hsin-Wei Lu at the 2012 NGP Retreat at Timberline Lodge

5) Attentive audience of NGP students, faculty and postdocs at the 2012 NGP Retreat at Timberline Lodge