The Power of Purpose
The Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Research Foundation(MBRF) is dedicated to furthering research in the increasingly important area of age-related memory loss. One way they’re following through with this is by ensuring the best researchers in the field are working in world-class facilities.
In 2004, the foundation pledged a $5-million gift to UAB to support research in age-related memory loss in the School of Medicine’s Department of Neurobiology. Through this gift, the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute and the Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Professorship for Learning and Memory in Aging were established.
“The trustees of the MBRF were invited to visit UAB when the university was in the process of developing the Richard C. and Annette N. Shelby Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Building, and we were impressed with the proposed new facility,” says J. Lee Dockery, M.D., one of the trustees of the MBRF.
“The trustees also were and are still interested in raising the level of awareness of the importance of research in cognitive aging to improve the health of the public, to assist people to age successfully, and to stress the importance of cognitive health as a component of total health.”
“We are incredibly indebted to the trustees of the MBRF for their investment in helping the School of Medicine explore the increasingly urgent need to far better understand age-related memory loss,” says Robert R. Rich, M.D., senior vice president and dean of the School of Medicine.
“The MBRF trustees were so interested in the recruitment of Dr. Sweatt that we increased the giftamount by an additional $1 million to convert the endowed professorship to an endowed chair,” Dockery says. “Dr. Sweatt’s entire research career has been dedicated to the same research interest and initiatives as those the MBRF is interested in supporting.”
J. David Sweatt, Ph.D., an internationally respected neurobiologist, is the current holder of the Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging and professor and director of the McKnight Brain Institute at UAB. He also serves as chair of the Department of Neurobiology. Prior to joining UAB, Sweatt was a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where he was director of the neuroscience graduate program and, from 1995 to 2004, chaired that school’s neuroscience Ph.D. program curriculum committee. He has received numerous honors and awards for his research and is an editor of the Journal of Neuroscience and several other scientific journals and the author or co-author of numerous scholarly papers.
“The creation of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute was absolutely critical in my decision to join the UAB community,” Sweatt says. “In fact, I feel that the possibility of becoming the director was the greatest single opportunity of my career. It takes an exceptional opportunity like that to motivate a senior-level researcher to change institutions.”
Sweatt says that the institute has been collaborating with the departments of Neurology, Psychiatry, Psychology, Neurobiology, and Pharmacology to recruit new biomedical scientists to Birmingham and UAB. “Having an outstanding facility like the McKnight Brain Institute is one of our strongest selling points for inducing top-notch researchers to join us here,” he says.
The MBRF was established in 1999 in Miami, Florida, by Evelyn Franks McKnight. She and her husband, William L. McKnight, were particularly interested in the effects of aging on memory. And Evelyn, who was a nurse, shared her husband’s belief in the importance of research. She continued to support his interest in brain research and memory until her death in 1999.
According to Sweatt, many of the most important new discoveries coming out of a top research institution like UAB have their genesis in foundation and individual philanthropic support. “A scientist’s opportunity to pursue his or her most aggressive and unorthodox new hypotheses, the truly paradigm-shifting ideas, for the most part only comes through private funding channels,” he says.
“This is especially important in the current economic era, when research funding overall is so difficult to obtain.
“The board of the MBRF has provided us exceptionally strong, unwavering support for the last five years. Funding from the MBRF has allowed a group of eight newly recruited faculty members to vigorously pursue their most innovative and creative scientific ideas. We are expecting great new discoveries to come out of the institute as a result of this opportunity.”