Famed neuroscientist Roger Nicoll, Ph.D., recently came to UAB to explain how he prevailed over great challenges in his life. Grad students in UAB’s Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program appreciated that, because they face challenges, too. Famed neuroscientist Roger Nicoll, Ph.D., recently came to UAB to explain how he prevailed over great challenges in his life. Grad students in UAB’s Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program appreciated that, because they face challenges, too.

Making neuroscientists cry — and showing them a way forward

September 09, 2015
By Jeff Hansen
Famed neuroscientist Roger Nicoll, Ph.D., recently came to UAB to explain how he prevailed over great challenges in his life. Grad students in UAB’s Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program appreciated that, because they face challenges, too.

When Roger Nicoll, Ph.D., spoke at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) 2014 meeting last November, he brought the audience to tears.

“Who thought the Grass lecture would make me cry?” tweeted The New PI. “R. Nicoll described his rise from kid with #dyslexia to leading neuroscientist #SfN14.”

“I thought I was the only one,” tweeted Scientific Chick.

“Holy crap he got to me (had my defenses down, was expecting a bunch of molecular stuff),” said Jess Holz.

And Josue Ortega Caro replied, “I was crying my heart out.”

After the first half hour recounting his scientific journey, the distinguished neuroscientist had stunned the 7,000 researchers at the Albert and Ellen Grass Lecture by opening up a veiled side of his life — the lifelong dyslexic miswiring in his brain that left him flailing in high school and college and frustrated by his inability to express creativity.

This was not what the audience expected from the winner of the Ralph W. Gerard Prize, the highest award of the Society for Neuroscience.

Up on the screen appeared Nicoll’s high school transcript. The high point, he noted? An A in mechanical drawing. The low point? An F in driver’s education, though he assured everyone that he was a good driver now. The rest of the transcript was mostly C’s and D’s, with a few B’s in science courses. His grade-point average was 2.13 on a 4-point scale.

That GPA and a 58th percentile score on his SAT left him far behind his classmates at Princeton (New Jersey) High School. Many of them were headed for the Ivy League; Nicoll was rejected by the lower-tier Northeast schools he applied to. His future was bleak.

“Wow, this has become a very different kind of moving event,” tweeted Dwayne Godwin as he listened.

“It shocked everyone in the neuroscience community because he’s such an icon,” remembered Lori McMahon, Ph.D., the Jarman F. Lowder Professor of Neuroscience in the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology and newly appointed dean of the UAB Graduate School. “It was so heart-wrenching watching him talk about this. He almost broke down several times, and he got all choked up.”

 Farah Lubin and Lori McMahonFarah Lubin (left) and Lori McMahon (right) are co-directors of the UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program, which is engaging and retaining underrepresented graduate trainees in the neuroscience workforce.

‘The driving force of my life’

Nicoll recently repeated that talk for the first time — speaking in Birmingham to neuroscience students from UAB and across the United States and Puerto Rico — to share his story of persistence in the face of challenge. The graduate students were a cross section of underrepresented trainees in the neuroscience workforce: racial or ethnic groups such as blacks or African-Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians or Alaskan natives, and Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders; or students with disabilities, where a physical or mental impairment limits a major life activity.

At the three-day NEURAL (National Enhancement of UnderRepresented Academic Leaders) conference presented by the UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program, they heard Nicoll and two other esteemed neuroscientists describe their scientific journeys and the obstacles each had to confront.

“We all have our own hurdles and roadblocks in our careers that we need to overcome,” Nicoll said. “I had dyslexia. In a foreign language film, for example, I can’t get through half the subtitles. I had lots of tutoring, but it was of no use. The faulty wiring in the brain in dyslexia can’t be repaired.

“I spent all my energy trying to cover it up,” Nicoll told the students. “When I failed, I had this frustration that became the driving force of my life, to overcome it, to show that I could succeed.”

The UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to help graduate students from those underrepresented groups succeed in their neuroscience careers, and thereby bring the benefits of diversity to the sciences, which include enhanced innovation and increased engagement and growth in scientific knowledge. The program now includes 21 UAB neuroscience graduate students, and it is the first of its kind in the Southeast.

“I always say, you can’t model what you haven’t seen,” said Roadmap co-director Farah Lubin, Ph.D., who moved from Haiti to New York City as a young girl. “If you see someone doing it, you’re more likely to do it as well.”

 Nate Harnett
Roadmap Scholar profile: Meet Nathaniel Harnett, a former music student who succumbed to the song of science.

Lubin, an associate professor in UAB’s Department of Neurobiology, says her family was mostly doctors and pharmacists; but she still faced challenges.

“People have judged me by what they see, not by what they know I’m capable of doing,” she said. “They see that I’m a woman, see that I’m a minority, see that I don’t look like a typical scientist. They have this preconceived idea of who I should be.”

At the Neuroscience 2014 meeting, McMahon, the other Roadmap co-director, was not just a face in the audience listening to Nicoll. She had been a postdoc under Julie Kauer, Ph.D., who in turn had been a postdoc under Nicoll. That made Roger Nicoll her scientific grandfather, and through that connection she had known him since she was a junior postdoctoral fellow. That scientific lineage and personal connection were the links to bringing Nicoll to the UAB NEURAL Conference, to retell the story of his refusal to give up.

“I think, for Roger, there are two kinds of people,” McMahon said, “those who have a challenge and kind of wither and die because of it, and those who have the same kind of challenge or disability and they get strength from it, they’re determined.

“What we need to do — and are trying to do — with this Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program,” she said, “is help those students who view themselves as having a challenge or having a disability or not being ‘good enough.’ We try to give them the tools they need, empower them and make them realize their own abilities, so that they will stay in neuroscience research. You may not see your talents, but we see your talents.”

‘I owe science my life’

As Nicoll continued to retell his Society for Neuroscience 2014 talk at UAB, he explained how he was finally able to use his talents, though he quipped as he shared his grades, “You have to wonder, what’s a 74-year-old doing carrying around his high school transcript?”

Nicoll’s IQ, a measure that was used in the 1950s to advise students, was 70 when he first took a timed test. It rose to 114, somewhat above normal, when the school counselor let him take an untimed test. The occupations suggested for that IQ, Nicoll says, were foreman, clerk, telephone operator, salesman and policeman.

“No researchers,” he noted.

“What can we make of this?” he asked. “These tests tell you a lot about your future success at test-taking, but they do not tell the key underlying story — they do not measure creativity, imagination, drive.”

One college, Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, was interested in Nicoll because he would add geographic diversity. Yet Nicoll still stood out for his grades. When the director of admissions met him at a social event for freshmen, he said, “Oh, you’re the one with the low SATs.”

Nicoll’s first semester in college earned him two C’s, two D’s and an F in German. “Frau Fabian,” he said. “I could pick her out of a lineup today.”

Placed on academic probation at the end of his first year, Nicoll decided science was the only way to raise his grades, and he spent the summer taking biology courses at Rutgers University. “I convinced myself that I could succeed. I pulled myself up.”

Though he finished college with a 2.5 GPA, Nicoll then went on to medical school. “A really fantastic medical school, the University of Rochester,” he said. “How did I get in? My mother — a forceful, confident woman — wrote my essay.”

At Rochester, Nicoll fell in love with neuroscience. He took a one-year leave of absence to try to identify the neurotransmitters used by different neurons, living in a rented room at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, an 8,000-bed psychiatric hospital in the Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

His work, mentored by Gian Salmoiraghi and Floyd Bloom, led to three single-author, groundbreaking papers. It was the demonstration that Nicoll had long sought.

“I convinced myself that I could do science,” he told the students. “It provided a liberation that I could express myself. I realized I could do experiments and be creative with them.

“I owe science my life,” Nicoll said. “It’s my savior.”

Building confidence

Helping students find that kind of confidence is the key challenge for the UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars program.

 Angela Nietz
Roadmap Scholar profile: Meet Angela Nietz, who has discovered the joy of teaching as well as learning.

“When students leave undergraduate school and come to graduate school, all of them are nervous — even the ones who come from the best schools and have four-point-oh’s,” McMahon said. “But the students whom this program is for tend to be even less secure than the rest. Many of them have come from schools that are not the top schools, and many of them are first-generation college students, so they haven’t had support through their education.”

Lubin and McMahon started to build the confidence of UAB’s first class of incoming Roadmap Scholars earlier this summer, well before the fall semester started.

The students first attended the three-day NEURAL Conference in June. Besides hearing invited luminaries like Nicoll, Erich Jarvis, Ph.D., of Duke University, and Kristen Harris, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin, they met underrepresented graduate students from other schools, and they attended professional development sessions, oral presentations and poster sessions. (This year’s incoming class of UAB Roadmap Scholars will be the ones giving oral talks and showing their work on posters by their second and third years.)

The conference was followed by a two-week NeuroLab Bench workshop. Older UAB Roadmap Scholar graduate students — who were already at UAB when the program began and were invited in as upper-level Roadmap Scholars — taught and led lab sessions on the vast range of techniques and methods used in neuroscience research, including extracting and manipulating RNA and DNA, polymerase chain reaction genotyping, Western blots, slicing fixed tissue, a variety of imaging techniques, growing cell lines, electrophysiology, optogenetics, functional magnetic resonance imaging, brain anatomy, bioinformatics, model organisms, behavioral surgery, and how to keep lab notebooks and read journal articles.

“Our incoming students have different types of research experience,” Lubin said. “So if they are going to stand a chance at succeeding and not being intimidated in the lab rotation process, we start them off on the same foot with the NeuroLab Bench.”

“It gives them a breadth of understanding and empowers them with resources,” said Mikael Guzman Karlsson, a Roadmap Scholar who has finished his first two years of medical school at UAB and is working on his Ph.D. in the lab of J. David Sweatt, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology. Guzman Karlsson taught in four of the NeuroLab Bench sessions.

The new students then spent two weeks getting their first formal neuroscience training from the UAB neuroscience faculty at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, 290 miles south of UAB on the Gulf of Mexico. The Sea Lab completely immerses students in the research lab experience, as they live and work alongside professors and graduate student assistants.

Back in Birmingham, the students are selecting a career coach — a UAB faculty member who will not be their research mentor — and they will prepare an individual development plan with McMahon and Lubin and the career coach. They also are selecting their first two lab rotations.

Need for mentorship

As their first classes and rotations begin this fall, the Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars will continue to have weekly lunch meetings with other scholars, career coaches, Lubin and McMahon, as well as quarterly meetings with Lubin, McMahon and the career coach. They also will get peer-to-peer mentoring.

“A lot of time I’m in my own little bubble, getting crabby when my experiments aren’t working,” Angie Nietz, an older Roadmap Scholar in her third year at UAB, said of the lunch meetings that began earlier this year for the older students. “Then I go to a Roadmap lecture and I just feel better. One was on work/life balance. One was a book discussion on ‘Expect to Win,’ written by a Wall Street woman on how to handle yourself in the workforce, and how to handle mentor/mentee relationships. It was really helpful. Another was on how to write an animal protocol for a grant.”

 Mikael Guzman Karlsson
Roadmap Scholar profile: Meet Mikael Guzman Karlsson, who has a passion for mentoring underrepresented students.

Nietz says she had a support system before she joined the Roadmap Scholars, but that group was mostly from her lab. “Now I have a support system outside the lab,” she said. “I can go to those people if I am having a problem and ask them for advice.

“I’m looking forward to being able to help this year’s new kids,” Nietz said. “The first year can be really challenging in terms of coursework that moves really fast and lab rotations that each present a steep learning curve with tons of information. Usually, new students do three rotations, each for 12 weeks, to learn what they are interested in and to pick a lab.”

“Going to graduate school and a Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences is a very challenging effort for anyone, regardless of their background and training,” Guzman Karlsson said. “It’s a long experience that requires a lot of personal development and multidimensional mentorship. Even though I’m further along in my training, I’ve been able to reap benefits from the Roadmap Scholars program.”

Next year, this year’s new Roadmap Scholars will begin peer-to-peer mentoring with incoming students of 2016.

Diversity and excellence

“Part of what Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars does so well is break down this isolation,” said Nathaniel Harnett, a third-year graduate student and a Roadmap Scholar. “We all have this isolation, and it helps to understand that we are not alone.”

The Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program is just one of the efforts by UAB to maintain and increase diversity in biomedical research and academic medicine.

“Diversity is vital to excellence,” Senior Vice President for Medicine and Dean of the UAB School of Medicine Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., has said. “In order to attract the best people to an organization, and in order to have the best ideas within an organization rise to the top, an environment must exist that is inclusive and diverse. The goal is not a number, but a culture of acceptance. We owe it to our students, our faculty and our patients to create, sustain and nurture the most diverse, inclusive School of Medicine possible.”

“I wholeheartedly agree with that mission,” said Guzman Karlsson, who as an undergraduate in California worked to help increase the number of underrepresented students in biomedical sciences.

At UAB, Guzman Karlsson has formed a new chapter of SACNAS, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. SACNAS has about 100 chapters across the United States, but the SACNAS Chapter at UAB is only the fourth in the Southeast, along with the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisiana–Lafayette and Clemson University.

“People talk about the leaky pipeline in training underrepresented students,” Guzman Karlsson said. “There are a lot of barriers, but there are also a lot of holes in the pipeline that need to be patched. We need to help underrepresented individuals at all their points of transition.

“Roadmap Scholars is an invaluable tool to ensure we train a diverse next generation of scientists,” he added, “and it is a concrete representation of Dr. Vickers’ goal. It makes a strong case that UAB is really serious about this goal.

“There is a difference between doing everything you can to recruit a diverse group of students,” Guzman Karlsson said, “and doing everything you can to ensure their retention and success.”