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The future of brain science lies in researchers like Poornima Kumar, a 30-year-old neuroscientist with the mind of a mathematician, the expertise of an engineer, and a PhD in neuroimaging.
Kumar, the hospital’s first John and Charlene Madison Cassidy Fellow in Translational Neuroscience, works in that sweet spot where neuroanatomy meets mathematics. She uses computational models—the concepts and language of math—to understand how the brain works using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
It is her multidisciplinary approach that makes her one of the most exciting young researchers in neuroscience today, according to Director of the Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research Diego A. Pizzagalli, PhD, who recruited Kumar from the University of Oxford in England, where she was a post-doctoral fellow. “One of the most important aspects of McLean’s mission is to train the next generation of scientists and clinicians in the field,” said Pizzagalli. “We especially need people who are comfortable embracing a multidisciplinary approach.”
Like many donors, John Cassidy, MD, has a personal connection with McLean. Dr. Cassidy, president, CEO, and chief medical officer of Nexus Health Systems in Houston, Texas, trained at McLean in the 1980s and went on to serve as psychiatrist in charge and co-founder of the neuropsychiatry program. He and his wife, Charlene, a neuropsychologist, saw their gift as a fitting way of thanking the institution that launched his career.
“My career was enhanced by the opportunities I was given at McLean, and I’m very thankful,” he said. “I feel it is my responsibility to provide similar opportunities for young clinicians and scientists at the point in their careers when they’re most vulnerable.” Saddled with education loans and just beginning to build supported research portfolios, many young researchers find it difficult to survive financially, he explained.
The Cassidys also see their fellowship, which will support a second fellow after Kumar, as the gift that keeps giving and ultimately benefits patients. “A good training environment is self-perpetuating,” said John. “With more experience under her belt, the trainee is eventually able to expand research, recruit other young investigators and influence others in the techniques or methods the research uncovered, all for the benefit of patients.”
McLean Chief Academic Officer Shelly F. Greenfield, MD, MPH, said the Cassidys have been good friends of the hospital for many years—in their role as National Council members as well as donors. “This gift reflects both their generosity and their understanding of the critical importance of investing in junior faculty,” she said. “McLean is superb training ground, and there are almost unlimited opportunities to enhance our research and clinical work through fellowships and, in the process, help McLean stay at the forefront of discovery and treatment.”
One very intriguing area of research the center is exploring is the connection between depression and anhedonia—the inability to experience pleasure. Kumar is assisting Dr. Pizzagalli’s laboratory with two ongoing federally funded studies in this area and is in the early stages of a third one she initiated.
Using fMRI—which pinpoints brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow and illuminating the energized area—Kumar and her colleagues study what happens in the brain when people are unable to experience pleasure. They believe that people who have difficulty feeling joy may be at increased risk of becoming depressed at some point in their lives. And once depressed, these patients tend to have worse outcomes than those who can feel pleasure. By piecing together this puzzle, clinicians may some day be able to intervene before someone becomes depressed and better tailor treatments once it sets in.
“Dr. Kumar has already made key contributions to these ongoing federal studies, and her own study should yield some very interesting insights,” said Pizzagalli.
As federal funding for scientific research has become increasingly difficult to obtain, donor-supported fellowships are allowing McLean to continue nurturing the youngest generation of researchers. “There is great talent among McLean’s trainees and junior faculty, but research dollars often are not available to put their ideas into action,” said Chief Academic Officer Shelly F. Greenfield, MD, MPH. “Privately supported fellowships help McLean continue to attract and train the best and the brightest at the start of their careers.”
In addition to the Cassidy fellowship, other donor-supported fellowships at McLean include: