UAB summer neuroscience program expands with NSF funding
- February 06, 2017

The expanded UAB Summer Program in Neuroscience, with renewed funding from the National Science Foundation, is looking for underserved undergrads for science mentoring. 

spin 2017 2Krista Hoevemeyer, class of 2013, at a lab bench. UAB's SPIN program fosters career development for underrepresented minority college students and/or students from non-research-intensive universities.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Summer Program in Neuroscience, a program designed to promote careers in science to deserving undergraduate college students, has regained funding from the National Science Foundation. The new grant, $120,000 per year for three years, will allow for significant expansion of the program, which aims to foster career development and provide research training for underrepresented minority students and/or students from non-research-intensive universities.

“The SPIN program focuses on students with demonstrated scientific aptitude who have interest in pursuing a career in scientific research but have not been exposed to that environment,” said Gwendalyn King, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology and the SPIN program director. “SPIN is a 10-week research-intensive program in which students are mentored in UAB neuroscience labs to get a firsthand look at whether research is a good career option for them.”

The program enrolls 10 students each summer, usually juniors and seniors, who get hands-on experience in a laboratory, as well as career counseling. Students are paired with a UAB neuroscience faculty member and are also mentored by senior graduate students in the lab.

“The program is a real opportunity for learning what a career in science is all about,” said Lucas Pozzo-Miller, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and SPIN co-director. “They don’t sit and watch — they are actively involved in the lab’s work. The goal of the program is that students accomplish enough to qualify for co-author status on research papers that originate in the lab.”

SPIN was originally funded by NSF for three years beginning in 2005. Following a loss of external funding in 2008, the program continued on a reduced scale through generous contributions from UAB internal organizations, including the Department of Neurobiology, the Comprehensive Neuroscience Center, the Civitan International Research Center and the Office of the Provost.

spin 2017 3SPIN participants such as Jinwoo Hur, class of 2013, spend ten weeks in UAB neuroscience research labs.

The reinstatement of NSF funding will allow the program to expand the number of students enrolled, provide stipends and help cover the cost of housing and meals. Since inception in 2005, SPIN has trained 106 undergraduates hailing from 29 states and two foreign countries.

Several former participants are now graduate students at UAB.

“I went to a small, liberal arts university in Minnesota for my undergraduate degree where there was little opportunity for doing research,” said Angie Nietz, now a fifth-year graduate student in the lab of Jacques Wadiche, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology. “The program gave me one of my only experiences of what it is like to do research outside of a classroom setting before entering graduate school. The research experience and excellent mentorship I received prepared me for applying to and being successful in graduate school.”

Nancy Gallus did her undergraduate work in molecular medicine at the University of Tübingen, Germany, before attending the UAB Spin program. She is now a graduate student in the laboratory of Jeremy Day, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology.

“SPIN was very important for me, as it was one of my first real research experiences,” she said. “It also helped me decide where I wanted to go for graduate school and how to apply.”

Shelly Nason, now a second-year graduate student in the lab of Kirk Habegger, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Medicine, says her Michigan liberal arts college did not offer opportunities for neuroscience research.

“SPIN was most beneficial to me in professional development, beyond the benefits of understanding what it meant to participate in actual research,” she said. “I entered the program feeling less than confident in my ability to get into graduate school, and I left with the tools and confidence that helped me receive multiple acceptance letters. I highlight the SPIN program as the best opportunity in my undergraduate studies that propelled me forward in my career as a scientist.”

Pozzo-Miller says the program has benefit even for those attendees who ultimately decide against a career in science.

“These are people who will have a voice in the future of science,” he said. “They are voters, decision-makers and potential leaders of our country, and it is incumbent on us to teach them critical thinking skills, to help them understand the importance of scientific thought, and to understand and believe in the value of science.”

“Diversity in science is extremely important, as it is in all fields,” King said. “We need investigators with different backgrounds and different experiences. This program, we hope, will foster and instill a love of science in these students.”

The deadline for applying for a position in the 2017 SPIN program in March 1. Information on applying is available online. The program runs from June 5 to Aug. 11.

The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees met at UAB and the program included an annual highlight of the institution.  This year, President Watts decided to do something a bit different than other years. In highlighting the accomplishments as a University to the Board, he decided to draw attention to a small handful of outstanding faculty.  He invited 5 faculty who represent excellence in their respective areas:  Outstanding Nurse, Physician, Educator, Researcher and Investigator.  He chose Dr. Jeremy Day to highlight as an example of an outstanding research scientist!  When President Watt’s gave the short backstory of the faculty's accomplishments, he asked them to stand in the audience - then President Pro Tempore Karen Brooks asked them to come forward. Although this may not be an official award, this is a huge honor!  Congratulations, Jeremy!!

Day Annual event
Brain plasticity: How adult-born neurons get wired-in
- February 2, 2017 

It appears that new cells compete to ‘win’ synapse connections away from old cells, which promotes network plasticity.

linda wadicheLinda Overstreet-Wadiche, Ph.D.One goal in neurobiology is to understand how the flow of electrical signals through brain circuits gives rise to perception, action, thought, learning and memories.

Linda Overstreet-Wadiche, Ph.D., and Jacques Wadiche, Ph.D., both associate professors in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Neurobiology, have published their latest contribution in this effort, focused on a part of the brain that helps form memories — the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus.

The dentate gyrus is one of just two areas in the brain where new neurons are continuously formed in adults. When a new granule cell neuron is made in the dentate gyrus, it needs to get ‘wired in,’ by forming synapses, or connections, in order to contribute to circuit function. Dentate granule cells are part of a circuit that receive electrical signals from the entorhinal cortex, a cortical brain region that processes sensory and spatial input from other areas of the brain. By combining this sensory and spatial information, the dentate gyrus can generate a unique memory of an experience.

Overstreet-Wadiche and UAB colleagues posed a basic question: Since the number of neurons in the dentate gyrus increases by neurogenesis while the number of neurons in the cortex remains the same, does the brain create additional synapses from the cortical neurons to the new granule cells, or do some cortical neurons transfer their connections from mature granule cells to the new granule cells?

Their answer, garnered through a series of electrophysiology, dendritic spine density and immunohistochemistry experiments with mice that were genetically altered to produce either more new neurons or kill off newborn neurons, supports the second model — some of the cortical neurons transfer their connections from mature granule cells to the new granule cells.

This opens the door to look at how this redistribution of synapses between the old and new neurons helps the dentate gyrus function. And it opens up tantalizing questions. Does this redistribution disrupt existing memories? How does this redistribution relate to the beneficial effects of exercise, which is a natural way to increase neurogenesis?

“Over the last 10 years there has been evidence supporting a redistribution of synapses between old and new neurons, possibly by a competitive process that the new cells tend to ‘win,’” Overstreet-Wadiche said. “Our findings are important because they directly demonstrate that, in order for new cells to win connections, the old cells lose connections. So, the process of adult neurogenesis not only adds new cells to the network, it promotes plasticity of the existing network.”

“It will be interesting to explore how neurogenesis-induced plasticity contributes to the function of this brain region,” she continued. “Neurogenesis is typically associated with improved acquisition of new information, but some studies have also suggested that neurogenesis promotes ‘forgetting’ of existing memories.”

The researchers also unexpectedly found that the Bax gene, known for its role in apoptosis, appears to also play a role in synaptic pruning in the dentate gyrus.

“There is mounting evidence that the cellular machinery that controls cell death also controls the strength and number of synaptic connections”

—Linda Overstreet-Wadiche

“There is mounting evidence that the cellular machinery that controls cell death also controls the strength and number of synaptic connections,” Overstreet-Wadiche said. “The appropriate balance of synapses strengthening and weakening, collectively termed synaptic plasticity, is critical for appropriate brain function. Hence, understanding how synaptic pruning occurs may shed light on neurodevelopmental disorders and on neurodegenerative diseases in which a synaptic pruning gone awry may contribute to pathological synapse loss.”

All of the work was performed in the Department of Neurobiology at UAB. In addition to Overstreet-Wadiche and Wadiche, co-authors of the paper, “Adult born neurons modify excitatory synaptic transmission to existing neurons,” published in eLife, are Elena W. Adlaf, Ryan J. Vaden, Anastasia J. Niver, Allison F. Manuel, Vincent C. Onyilo, Matheus T. Araujo, Cristina V. Dieni, Hai T. Vo and Gwendalyn D. King.

Much of the data came from the doctoral thesis research of Adlaf, a former UAB Neuroscience graduate student who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University.

Funding for this research came from Civitan International Emerging Scholars awards, and National Institutes of Health awards or grants NS098553, NS064025, NS065920 and NS047466.
Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., senior vice president for Medicine and dean of the UAB School of Medicine delivered the annual State of the School address to a packed crowd at the Margaret Cameron Spain Auditorium. He highlighted some of the many accomplishments during the last year and talked about the vision for the future.  Research continues to be one of the many keys to the UAB community.

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