Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC faculty members Stephen LaConte and Jennifer Munson were promoted to full professor, Brittany Howell was promoted to associate professor with tenure, and associate professor Yuchin “Albert” Pan was awarded tenure during the June Virginia Tech Board of Visitors meeting.

“Tenure decisions and promotions to associate professor or professor are important milestones in recognizing the achievements of faculty members,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and Virginia Tech vice president for health sciences and technology. “They signify that faculty members are not only accomplished and respected scholars but also innovative and productive researchers and dedicated mentors and teachers who are fully engaged and active members of the academic community, with the potential to make lasting contributions to their fields, institutions, and the next generation of scholars.”

Stephen LaConte, a member of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics of the College of Engineering, is devoted to advanced neuroimaging acquisition and data analysis approaches, aimed at improving basic understanding of normal brain function and exploring the potential for rehabilitation and therapy for neurological and psychiatric conditions. LaConte has applied his methods to fields ranging from alcohol abuse to traumatic brain injury.

A major focus of the lab is an innovation in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that his lab developed and called “temporally adaptive brain state,” or TABS fMRI.

He is widely published including a recent study in the journal Neurology regarding blood biomarkers and white matter MRI in sport-related concussion.

Friedlander said, “Dr. LaConte is among the initial cadre of leading neuroscientists who relocated to launch the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. His pioneering work on using fMRI in real time and for TABS have contributed to revolutionizing the use of brain imaging in novel powerfully analytical ways.”

Jennifer Munson, also a member of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, studies the tumor microenvironment in cancers, including glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer. Her research focuses on the emerging research area of fluid flow to understand cancer’s invasion and spreading within the brain. In brain cancer, fluid flow increases between cells within the tissue, specifically across the invasive edge of the tumor where cells are prone to both interact with the surrounding brain tissue and to evade treatment. Her lab works to find ways to make tumors more vulnerable to drug therapies. 

In study in April in APL Bioengineering, she and colleagues described an improved strategy for studying flows and interstitial transport in tumors and patients that they expect will contribute to the better understanding of cancer progression and therapeutic response.

Friedlander said, “Dr. Munson is a thought leader in the advancement of new approaches to using both computational modeling and experimental work to better understand the dynamics of the complex environment that is created both within and surrounding these otherwise deadly brain cancers.  Her multi-disciplinary approach to this challenge holds promise for the development of new therapeutic strategies both for broad based as well as highly patient specific approaches.”

Brittany Howell, also a member of the Department of Human Development and Family Science of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, blends biological and behavioral analysis to capture a wide range of factors implicated in healthy human brain development. Her laboratory analyzes and compares breast milk composition, feeding habits, stress levels, fecal microbiology, social behavior, and brain imaging data. She studies gut-brain-behavior axis development, and the biological pathways of early experience and maternal influence on infant neurodevelopment. 

Numerous studies have suggested that when expecting and new mothers are stressed, hormonal changes not only impact the mother’s health, but also affect the baby’s development. In addition to the genetic traits inherited from the baby’s parents, other factors occurring in utero or after birth, nutrition, feeding habits, sleep hygiene, home conditions, and mother-baby interactions, can all influence brain development during the first few months of life.

Recently in the journal of Clinical and Translational Science, she and colleagues probed the barriers impeding underrepresented populations from participating in long-term scientific studies to develop best practice recommendations.

Friedlander said, “Dr. Howell is among a very small and select group of investigators in the world who can design and implement innovative experiments that integrate and synthesize the multi-factorial aspects of early life brain development and function. Her approach utilizes a combination of state-of-the-art scientific research technology and real-world fundamental inquiry that captures the lives and behaviors of mothers and their children. She is truly out front in this important arena of medical science that is foundational to our ability to make the most informed decisions regarding the health of future generations.”

Yuchin “Albert” Pan, also a member of the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, uses zebrafish as a tool to discover the general principles of vertebrate nervous system development and neurological and psychiatric disorders. These general principles offer insights that are otherwise unobtainable in humans or even in many typical laboratory animals such as rodents to help researchers to understand and identify novel treatment options for human disorders. 

During development, neurons establish connections with each other called synapses to form functional neural circuits for transmitting information both within local networks in the brain as well as across long distances from one brain region to another or to other organ systems throughout the body. Precise assembly of these circuits is essential for normal behavior while disorders that impact that normal assembly can lead to a variety of neuropsychiatric diseases. But the immense structural complexity of the human brain – with 80 billion neurons and trillions of synapses – makes studying developmental mechanisms and connectivity a challenge. Moreover, even small mammalian laboratory animal models such as mice have limitations for transferring findings to humans and technological limitations that the zebrafish overcomes. The optically translucent Zebrafish brain, with about 100,000 neurons in the larvae, is a powerful and useful model to stud many of these disorders that impact humans. More than 70 percent of human disease genes have functional homologs in zebrafish, making it possible to model human mutations in this more accessible system

Using zebrafish, Pan and colleagues have published discoveries in important journals, including the Journal of Neuroscience.  His lab has identified potential causes of uncoordinated saccadic eye movements, uncovered the molecular mechanisms for craniofacial deficits in undiagnosed human disease, and developed new viral vector-based tools for visualizing brain connection patterns.

Friedlander said, “Dr. Pan is one of the most creative neuroscientists who uses the powerful zebrafish model to dissect the developmental mechanisms of the brain in health and across multiple diseases that impact humans. He combines molecular probes, genetics, optical imaging, and careful behavioral analysis to home in on causative processes and close the links between hypotheses and facts that is providing insights into several human neurological disorders that have otherwise been refractory to mor standard laboratory approaches.”

“Each of these four faculty research team leaders at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute has made a significant impact in their respective fields of focus that is contributing to Virginia Tech’s increasing presence on the global stage of distinction, particularly in the biomedical and health sciences,” added Friedlander. “Their promotions and tenure are very well-deserved and consistent with the level of excellence that is to be expected on the national and international stage for these levels of achievement. In addition to their leading-edge research, they all have also served as committed and outstanding mentors to multiple students including undergraduate, graduate and medical students, many of whom will follow their career paths in their future endeavors. Virginia Tech and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, as well as our college partners in the College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and the College of Veterinary Medicine are all very fortunate to have these highly productive and dedicated scholars in our programs.”