Movement disorders training program hosts NINDS leadership

NIINDS leaders and students
Dr. Letitia Weigand, second from right, and Dr. Stephen Korn, right, meet with UF trainees. Photos by Mindy Miller.

As the University of Florida T32 Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Training in Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration program closes its fourth year, it has many successes to celebrate, including five graduates who have gone on to prestigious positions in academia and industry, and an expanding network of mentors and collaborations. Recently, the program was able to give leaders at the funding agency — the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health — a firsthand look at the work of trainees during a campus visit.

Stephen Korn, Ph.D., director, and Letitia Weigand, Ph.D., program manager, both of the NINDS office of training and workforce development, spent a day talking with program trainees and mentors as well as UF graduate students and junior faculty in the neurosciences. Their visit coincided with a meeting in Gainesville of NINDS T32 training programs directors from around the country, including the directors of UF’s program, Dawn Bowers, Ph.D., a professor in the department of clinical and health psychology at the College of Public Health and Health Professions, and David Vaillancourt, Ph.D., a professor in the department of applied physiology and kinesiology at the College of Health and Human Performance.

“A lot of the things that we had read on paper about the UF program and the conversations we’ve had with Dawn and Dave had us really excited to come down there and see what was actually happening on the ground,” Weigand said.

The UF Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Training in Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration program trains doctoral students to become independent researchers whose work will lead to new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, tremor and ataxia. Trainees choose one of three focus areas: molecular biology and animal models; translational neuroscience and physiology; or human movement and cognitive neuroscience. The program is designed to give trainees a solid foundation in research methodology and data presentation and increase interaction between trainees with clinical and basic science backgrounds. A focus on cross-disciplinary work has been part of the program from the beginning, Bowers said.

“As researchers, sometimes you get caught up in your own silo,” Bowers said. “Working with people from other disciplines promotes divergent thinking and new ideas about how to address movement diseases and disorders. The goal is to get these students working together and set the stage for team science.”

To facilitate this, trainees take part in a group project in the movement disorders class taught by Vaillancourt, one of three core courses for trainees. Using the Michael J. Fox Foundation Parkinson’s Progressive Markers Initiative, a database and specimen bank collected from nearly 1,000 participants, trainees work in teams to develop a research question, test their hypothesis and analyze the data.

“We have students in the class who have a variety of different backgrounds and experience, including genetics, basic neuroscience, clinical neuropsychology and physiology,” Vaillancourt said. “Each has different approaches to the problem of understanding Parkinson’s disease and its progression.”

The UF training program’s group research project is unique among NINDS-funded training programs, Weigand said.

“One of the things we like to see is programs implementing activities that provide opportunities for trainees to come together and talk about not just the research they’re doing, but advances in their fields and identifying threads where their work intersects with each other’s,” Weigand said.

NINDS leaders with training group
Dr. Korn and Dr. Weigand pose with T32 Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Training in Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration program trainees and directors Dr. Dawn Bowers and Dr. David Vaillancourt.

Another unique aspect of UF training program is the associate trainees component, which allows other interested students to participate in all aspects of the training program, including monthly meetings, guest lectures and career development opportunities.

During their UF visit, Korn and Weigand had an opportunity to learn more about the trainees’ group and individual projects. They also set aside time for trainees to ask them questions about research funding and careers.

“Drs. Korn and Weigand detailed all of the major, and some of the less well-known, ways in which trainees can apply for funding before moving on for postdoctoral work,” said trainee Joe Lebowitz, a doctoral student in neuroscience. “They also spent time dispelling the idea of ‘first class’ and ‘second class’ career paths  after getting a Ph.D., and emphasized the importance of choosing a field that aligns with personal interests over perceived achievement. For them to come and speak so openly and make themselves so accessible was really a gift for all of the trainees.”

In the afternoon, Korn and Weigand met with students across campus who are involved in neuroscience, as well as fellows and junior faculty in neurology and neurosurgery. The NINDS has recently funded another UF training program, an R25 Research Education Program that will support neurology and neurosurgery residents’ research activities and academic career development. The program is directed by Brian Hoh, M.D., chair of the Lillian S. Wells Department of Neurosurgery, and Michael S. Okun, M.D., chair of neurology and co-director of the Fixel Center for Neurological Diseases at UF Health.

“We left Gainesville thinking that this is a place where people are taken care of and looked out for,” Weigand said. “The mentors and faculty care about training and they’re busy people who don’t have to care, but they do. It’s always wonderful to know people are really invested in training. That came across so clearly from everyone we talked to.”