This is Our History
Written by Elizabeth Weaver, Brains & Behavior
2007 was a period of growth and innovation at Georgia State University. The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience and the Brains & Behavior Area of Focus were thriving, when a group of pioneering faculty put their efforts towards creating a degree granting Institute in the College of Arts & Sciences. In 2008, the Neuroscience Institute (the NI) was formed. This is its story in the making. THIS is TEN.
HOME IS WHERE THE LABS ARE
The NI’s first home was in Georgia State University’s historic Wayne Kell Hall. Throughout GSU’s history, Kell Hall has been the home of a lot of firsts. When acquired in 1945, the structure was the first permanent building on the Atlanta Center’s Evening College’s campus (now Georgia State). It was a parking garage, known only as Ivy Street Garage until 1964. Although this presented a potentially costly challenge, Atlanta Center’s Evening College’s director, George Sparks, used war surplus materials to turn the garage into classrooms. Atlanta Center’s Evening College was unique in that it enrolled women as early as 1917, and offered night classes for people who worked during the day. In addition, Sparks left the ramps in the parking garage in hopes that they would serve as handicap-friendly accommodations for recently returning veterans. Handicap accessibility for veterans was just another innovative way the College could meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body; something GSU has proudly continued to do throughout its history.
Fast forward to the 1970s, Georgia State University had its current name and was expanding its curricula and campus. Its student population was growing as well. As various faculty began joining the ranks to teach eager undergraduates and graduates alike, Biologist and Professor Emeritus Donald Ahearn, Ph.D. helped put GSU on the biology research map; it is thought that he secured the first external biology grant at the University.
In the 1980s, GSU was beginning to train its first batch of graduate students in the natural sciences. Labs in Kell Hall were popping up and the first Doctorate of Philosophy in the natural sciences for Biology and Chemistry was created, known as the Laboratory for Microbial and Biochemical Sciences thanks to Biology and Chemistry Chairs Ahmed Abdelal, Ph.D. and David Boykin, Ph.D. Despite no formal neuroscience programs at GSU, if you looked hard enough, a small smattering of people studying neuroscience and its related disciplines could be found. A few scholars in the Psychology department, such as faculty member John de Castro, Ph.D., were conducting research in “psychobiology.” Biologist and, now, Regents’ Professor Emeritus, Don Edwards, Ph.D. came to Georgia State in 1981 and set up a lab studying sensorimotor responses in crayfish. Regents’ Professor Charles Derby, Ph.D. followed in 1984 with a research program examining how animal nervous systems respond to natural chemicals. Associate Professor and Biologist William Walthall, Ph.D. arrived in ’88 studying the neurobiology of the roundworm, C. elegans. Georgia State even built a new Language Research Center (LRC) to accommodate the pioneering research in ape-language learning, known as the Language ANAlog (LANA) Project, run by then Psychology chair, Professor Emeritus, Duane Rumbaugh, Ph.D, Sue Savage Rumbaugh, Ph.D. and Professor David Washburn, Ph.D.
Faculty joint appointments between Psychology and Biology, like those of Regents’ Professors Elliott Albers, Ph.D. and Tim Bartness, Ph.D., in the mid 1980s were especially vital. These appointments further cemented the partnership between the two departments; a collaboration that would ultimately serve as the foundation for GSU neuroscience.
GROWING INTO & OUT OF
In the 1940s and 50s, George Sparks had leased out parts of Kell Hall to various entities including a sawmill, Southern Bell Telephone Co., Franklin Tire Co., the Board of Regents; even The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra held rehearsals in the building. Eventually, Kell Hall would come to house a vivarium, or animal research facility. But even in its early years, humans weren’t alone in Kell Hall. There was a beehive as well as free-ranging turtles in the building at one point. Another time, Charles Derby, Ph.D. caught and released a bat.
By the 1990s, however, Kell Hall underwent some modern renovations and became full of white research coats and students learning about science. In 1992, Georgia State built the Natural Science Center across the street from Kell Hall and science officially had its corner on campus. Around this time, in 1995, Georgia State proudly accepted title as a Research 1 University. We were in the big leagues now.
A cultural interest in neuroscience was beginning to appear in the 90s as well. This interest on behalf of enthusiastic students and the successful lobbying of key neuro-centric faculty led to the development of the Neurobiology & Behavior (NBB) specialty within the Biology Department. The new specialty, coupled with the research-oriented focus of then Biology Chair and Regents’ Professor P.C. Tai, Ph.D., attracted both graduate students and faculty to Georgia State’s blossoming neuroscience research.
In 1998, GSU’s Elliott Albers, Ph.D. and Emory’s Tom Insel, Ph.D. established the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN). The CBN, which included eight institutions (Georgia State University, Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Morehouse School of Medicine, and the four schools in the Atlanta University Center: Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College, and Spelman College) was funded by a $37 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center Program after a national competition in 1999. Although the CBN was originally housed at Emory University, the Center moved to Georgia State in 2002 when Dr. Insel left Emory to become director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Dr. Albers became, and still is, its director. CBN’s new home at GSU was a pivotal development for the future of neuroscience at GSU. The Center helped fund over 40 new faculty hires in the fields of neuroscience and neuroscience education at Georgia State as well as at CBN’s partner universities and colleges. Georgia State made substantial commitments to the hiring of faculty and staff and much of the equipment and funds for lab renovation came from the Georgia Research Alliance. The CBN had transformed the 2nd floor of Kell Hall into a thriving neuroscience hub on campus.
With research flourishing at all ends of the campus by 2005, then Provost Ron Henry, Ph.D. thought the most effective way to build GSU’s research profile was to create well defined, yet inclusive Areas of Focus throughout the university. Provost Henry’s vision was to help members of scattered and large research populations find each other through common interests and goals. Ultimately, three Areas of Focus were formed including the Molecular Basis of Disease, Brains & Behavior, and Public Health.
Each Area of Focus helped hire faculty and promote research collaboration across departments. At its inception, Brains & Behavior, also known as B&B, had participating faculty and funded fellowships in Biology, Psychology, Computer Science, Physics, Mathematics & Statistics, Philosophy, and Chemistry.
Eddy Nahmias, Ph.D. and Andrea Scarantino, Ph.D. (future chair of the B&B Interdisciplinary Committee) were hired in Philosophy in 2005 as part of the B&B hiring initiative and established the popular Neurophilosophy Forum in 2006. In addition, using B&B fellowships as a recruitment tool, Philosophy created the Neurophilosophy Track in their nationally ranked Masters program. B&B shared not only faculty and staff with CBN, but also adopted some of the Center’s effective organizational structure and function. CBN held retreats, funded graduate fellowships and faculty seed grants, provided professional development workshops, taught undergraduates, and trained teachers across all of Atlanta, while B&B engaged the University community in a similar fashion. Importantly, B&B brought together faculty from all over GSU who were studying neuroscience, broadly defined. Dialog between seemingly dissimilar departments opened up and collaborations that represented the true transdisciplinary nature of neuroscience itself were born.
Shortly after B&B was formed, faculty in B&B, NBB, and Neurophilosophy realized the increasing need for a centralized neuroscience unit at the university, maybe even a degree granting one. At the request of then Arts & Sciences Dean Lauren Adamson, Ph.D., B&B Director Don Edwards, Ph.D. called a retreat to discuss the future of neuroscience at GSU, including the possibility of a new institute or department.
The working retreat at Callenwolde in 2007 produced an assessment of the current state of neuroscience at the university and identified both the goals and the hurdles of creating a degree granting Neuroscience unit. Importantly, the retreat formed an “Institute Task Force” that began exploring the feasibility and structure of a new interdisciplinary entity.
In early 2008, a group of faculty led by Laura Carruth, Ph.D. (Biology) and George Rainbolt, Ph.D. (Philosophy) finalized the by-laws. Moving at an astonishing pace, the process was completed, and by July 1st, 2008, Walt Wilczynski, Ph.D. was appointed Director, Anne Murphy, Ph.D. was appointed Associate Director and the Neuroscience Institute (NI) was born.
Immediately upon setting up the department, the NI faculty began the arduous task of developing new degree programs for Board of Regents approval. The doctoral program came first in 2010 and rapidly grew from 0 to 50 students in just a few short years. An undergraduate BS major followed in 2012, growing quickly from a small handful of majors in the first year to over 200 in its second year, to now nearly 400 majors. Remarkably, the Neuroscience Major includes one of the largest number of Honors College students of any major at GSU.
People outside the University were also taking notice of the Institute’s growing potential. In 2011, two generous Robinson College of Business alumni, Georganne and Kenneth Honeycutt, generated further momentum by setting up a fund for GSU neuroscience students who are excelling in their research and have passed the first round of graduate exams. Since then, 18 Neuroscience graduate students have benefited from the Honeycutt Fellowship. One recent Neuroscience graduate and recipient of the Honeycutt, Kate McCann, Ph.D. said the generous gift allowed her not to “stress about money while [she was] in grad school [and] helped ease [her] financial stress… so [she could] really focus on research.”
People usually say, if you build it, they will come. However, it was quite the opposite when it came to the bustling neuroscience community here at GSU. They had come, now we needed to build it, and fast.
It wasn’t solely Neuroscience that needed space to grow and prosper, it was many of the sciences. Around the time of the Institute’s creation, whispers of plans for a new science park circled the university and before long, GSU had broken ground on the south-eastern side of campus. The building blueprint was an impressive state-of-the-art science facility. In the newly constructed Parker H. Petit Science Center at Decatur Street and Piedmont Ave, the Neuroscience Institute found its home on the 7th, 8th & 9th floors.
Today, B&B, CBN, and NI live in close quarters in Petit Science Center and the centralized location is a huge advantage. B&B has faculty in 17 departments and continues to be the driving interdisciplinary force at the heart of the Neuroscience Institute, while CBN continues to connect neuroscience on a multi-institutional level.
At ten years old, the NI has accomplished its original goals and more. With over 50 graduate students training with core and associate faculty across various departments, nearly 400 undergraduates, and over 60 core and associate faculty, the NI doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
Its initial vision was surpassed when, a few years ago, under the leadership of then Director Geert de Vries, Ph.D., it was ranked 8th in the nation between Wake Forest and Harvard by GraduatePrograms.com. Not bad for a youngster of single digits.
It would be remiss not to mention the outstanding staff and administration that manages the NI on adaily basis. Their efforts are reflected in the rich culture and efficient organization in the NI’s day-to-day operations under current Director, Nancy Forger, Ph.D. With the incredible accomplishments and unbridled potential of the people that makeup the Neuroscience Institute, the NI has a bright future. Unfortunately, Kell Hall’s future doesn’t look quite as optimistic. With the exodus of many centralized departments and the addition of the newly developed science park, Kell Hall and a few surrounding buildings are becoming increasingly obsolete. The replacement of these building is inevitable and bittersweet. We say goodbye and thank you to a piece of history. May turtles run the ramps forever and may Kell Hall, standing or not, represent the beginning of something people-driven, diverse, and pioneering.