This has been a very challenging year with the COVID-19 epidemic disrupting our personal lives and affecting our research and teaching activities in an unprecedented manner. In my own memories, even the bankruptcy of 1999 did not have the same devastating effects because once we had a resolution we could and did move ahead and felt in control of the recovery. Now the rules are coming from the state, the city and the University relative to the severity of the pandemic, with no end soon. Early this year we were in an almost complete shut-down, losing precious resources of essential animals and stopping long-term experiments. And yet we prevailed, with a gradual return to the labs in a carefully constructed plan that emphasized safety. By November we moved to 40 hour a week in an expanded work schedule and shifts that allowed distancing and increased productivity.
Amazingly, the pause in lab research resulted in a flood of productivity in publications and, most remarkably, in 36 new grants. As you will see in the award section of the Newsletter, in 2020 so far, we received 11 new R01s as well R21, F31, DoD and foundation grants adding up to $3-4M/year for a total of about $20M. Importantly, it allowed Jessica Ausborn and Simon Danner to move to tenure-track positions; Oscar Qiang will join their ranks once his award is finalized. Marie Pascale-Côté solidified her funding with several new grants, Ilya Rybak had a multi-PI R01 grant, Peter Baas received NIH and DoD funding to continue his record of excellence, Veronica Tom got her third R01, Ramesh Raghupathi had his R01 with an astounding score of 2nd percentile, and altogether the department is on the way for a grant portfolio of over $10M/year. Other outstanding accomplishments are reflected in the Goldberger/Murray awards for students, faculty and staff, also included in this newsletter.
We had to make adjustments with virtual rotations for first-year graduate students and remote classes using Zoom, but the momentum provided by the new funding and new faculty will help us catch up with experiments and effective expansion of our research enterprise. I am pleased that we were also able to continue our other academic activities. We continued for the second year a systematic postdoctoral review, including comments by the Faculty Development Committee. No other department at the University has established such a review process despite tentative plans and the realization that such a review is essential. Our students responded to the crisis with a remarkable sense of community service and particularly an awareness of racial inequalities. They formed Neuroscience Graduate Student for Diversity (NGSD) and initiated various activities, they continued to participate in the Taste of Science in Philadelphia, and they were determined to get this 2020 newsletter (#4) published.
Our educators also had to make major adjustments to medical education and remote teaching including Gross Anatomy, by purchasing and learning new dissection software (Complete Anatomy). To help with increased complexity of hybrid teaching and the increased need for prosectioned cadavers, we hired Brandon (Doug) Whitmire, who has also become our yoga and meditation guru. At the same time, Caitlin Howe conducted the summer Gross Anatomy course for Arcadia University (generating considerable income for the department) as well as, with others, continuing the online remediation courses (more income) and the Neuroscience Summer Camp. As we get ready for the opening the Reading campus, Haviva Goldman spearheaded the recruitment of three new educators (Medical Neuroscience, Histology and Gross Anatomy), evaluating dozens of applicants and organizing interviews, which all came to a successful conclusion with three new faculty – Jenna Wilcox, PhD (Gross Anatomy), Kelly Brenan, MD (Histology and Pathology) and Dana Peterson, PhD (Medical Neuroscience). The challenge was to get our faculty at Reading with sufficient overlap in anatomical sciences to work as a team, and fortunately, one with seniority (Dana coming as professor) to provide leadership. They will integrate with all department academic activities and develop their own scholarship.
As far as personnel changes, we have three of our faculty who moved or will be moving to tenure track (Jessica, Simon, Oscar), three new teaching faculty for the Reading campus (Jenna, Kelly, Dana), one who left (Manuel Castro) and one retired (Bruce Hirsch, whose legacy of artistic anatomy and bowties will always be remembered). As far as promotions, Michael Lane, Rodrigo España and Kim Dougherty were promoted to associate professor and Veronica Tom to full professor, with pending promotion for Marie. I started to worry that with this rate of promotions we will end up having only senior faculty, but with the transition of three of our faculty to tenure-track positions we are sure to have a continuous pool of young talent. In particular, I want to mention the Computational Neuroscience group that, under the leadership of Ilya Rybak, is now composed of five investigators with an international reputation of excellence and innovation. There was a change of guard in the spinal cord research center, with Simon Giszter and Veronica taking over as directors, and with the challenge of keeping the legacy and accomplishments of Marion Murray and John Houle.
We are also resurrecting the joint Neuroengineering program with Biomedical Engineering, where Katie von Reyn and Vikas Bhandawat serve as excellent partners. Finally, I want to thank our office staff: Lisa, who has been dealing with two crises a day relentlessly... Joy, who was present in the office throughout the pandemic... Anna, who watched our expenses to keep us in compliance...and Kathy, who keeps me going even after five Zoom meetings.
Itzhak Fischer, PhD
Professor and Chair