Science & Research, University News

Science professors receive fellowships

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Contributing Writer

Three faculty members will be named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science next month, an honor that recognizes scientists’ contributions to their fields over the course of their careers. Barry Connors, professor and chair of the department of neuroscience; Diane Lipscombe, professor of neuroscience; and David Rand, professor of biology, were named to the association this past November and will be recognized Feb. 18 along with 536 other new fellows during its annual meeting.

The AAAS is an international organization dedicated to supporting the sciences. It elects fellows by evaluating the work of candidates who are nominated by peers in their discipline. “It is a high honor for the faculty and for Brown because it recognizes individuals who are viewed as being among the outstanding researchers in their field,” said Clyde Briant, vice president for research, in an email to The Herald. Connors, Lipscombe and Rand said they felt pleasantly surprised by their peers’ recognition.  

“You sometimes wonder if anyone’s even paying attention to what you’re doing,” Connors said. His research focuses on the neocortex, the outermost region of the brain. His team works to understand the electrical and physical properties of the brain’s wiring networks, particularly when it functions abnormally, as is the case in epilepsy and other disorders.

Connors said a significant key to effectively treating epilepsy could come through microbes with light-sensitive proteins. Through genetic manipulation, these proteins can be expressed in other organisms’ neurons, which are the cells that make up the brain’s wirings. Consequently, the neurons’ activity can be enhanced or inhibited by different colors of light.

Further scientific progress could lead to devices that would emit light upon detecting the onset of a seizure, inhibiting additional excitement of neurons which would otherwise push the brain into the seizure state. Connors said he sees great potential for this technology and has been collaborating with other departments, such as engineering and physics, to investigate its possibilities. “It’s a great example of how basic science has benefits no one ever would have predicted,” he said.

“It’s really nice to get unsolicited recognition,” said Lipscombe, who has been doing research since her high school graduation. She started working as a technician at a drug company after high school, expressing interest in forensic science after reading Agatha Christie novels. She said she found that she loved doing research and later enrolled at University College London, becoming the first member of her extended family to go to college.

Lipscombe’s current research also examines the wiring network of the brain. In particular, she is an expert on calcium ion channels, which are proteins found in neurons. These channels are important drug targets because different subtypes of the channel follow unique pathways. To treat pain, one could develop a drug that only affects the specific type of channels in the pain pathway, she said.

Lipscombe has been researching calcium channels since 1986 and has continued to be intrigued by the pace at which the technology in neuroscience has developed. “We can answer questions we never thought we could begin to ask,” she said.

Rand also said he felt honored to be recognized for his contributions to biology. Still, he said he always feels there is more he can do to advance his field. Rand’s research combines evolutionary biology and genetics. His experiments swap genetic material from mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of the cell, to create nuclear-mitochondrial genetic hybrids in fruit flies. His team analyzes variations in the flies’ “fitness traits” like survival rates and offspring production. Being able to take apart the nuclear-mitochondrial system and identify the interactions is significant since many human diseases are mitochondria-based, Rand said.

Rand is also the director of the Center for Computational Molecular Biology, which unites computer science with genetics and evolutionary biology.