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Published in CenterView on September 24, 2012
Dr. Michael Lehman, front, with neuroscience staff, from left, Dr. Chrysanthi Fergani, postdoctoral fellow, Rick Baltazar, graduate student, and Marcia Cernea, graduate student
Dr. Michael Lehman, front, with neuroscience staff, from left, Dr. Chrysanthi Fergani, postdoctoral fellow, Rick Baltazar, graduate student, and Marcia Cernea, graduate student

New neurobiology chair seeks to redefine traditional anatomy, spur translational research

By Jack Mazurak

A crane swinging I-beams into place and a nearly constant blast of construction noise now common at the University of Mississippi Medical Center might make a distracting backdrop outside the window of Dr. Michael Lehman’s temporary office.

But all the work makes an apt metaphor for a man with big building plans for his academic department and UMMC.

Lehman joined the Medical Center part time in April and came on fully in July as the new chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomical Sciences. At his direction, the chair’s office and department headquarters – located in the original hospital’s research wing – is undergoing a facelift, hence his temporary spot just down the hall.

His office overlooks the new cardiovascular center’s construction site: an aural drawback for some, but Lehman sees the work as indicative of a medical center on the move.

Three months into the job, Lehman said he’s impressed by the depth and quality of research at UMMC, as well as with the Medical Center’s direction.

“The leadership here is much more progressive, visionary and forward-thinking than at many larger institutions,” he said.

A New Jersey native, Lehman earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience in 1982 from the University of Michigan. Most recently, he served as professor of physiology, obstetrics and gynecology and codirected the reproductive sciences program at Michigan. Before that, he chaired the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Western Ontario.

To his second chairmanship he brought three postdoctoral fellows and two Ph.D. students and has already set up labs to continue his research in reproductive neuroendocrinology and circadian rhythms.

“It’s been important for me to balance my research with responsibilities as a chair,” he said. “As a leader you learn that you need to share responsibilities with others and rely on their help.”

His wife, Dr. Lique Coolen, joined the Department of Physiology and Biophysics as a professor and also will serve as an associate dean in the School of Graduate Studies in the Health Sciences. Her research focuses on the neurobiology of reward and motivation.

To build the department, Lehman wants to increase the role of neuroscience and redefine traditional anatomy. As well, he wants to focus on career development for everyone from postdocs to professors emeriti.

To widen the role of neuroscience research and training, he wants to spur translational research by making connections.

“Not just between basic and clinical science, but between schools and between undergraduate and graduate programs. The trick is to overcome the traditional silos,” he said of related branches of science and medical specialties that often practice without interaction.

To spark crossover, he wants to assemble a group that helps link neurosciences with other departments and centers involved in relevant research and clinical activities.

“We have tremendous expertise in multiple departments, as well as in the MIND Center, the Center for Psychiatric Neuroscience, the Women’s Health Research Center and the Cancer Institute, among others,” he said. “Our challenge is to focus on areas of neuroscience where we can excel and accelerate the link between discovery and recovery,” he said.

To redefine traditional anatomy, Lehman wants to establish a division of clinical anatomy to create a new career track for current and future faculty.

The division would train anatomists as educator-scholars who would focus on teaching students. They would contribute to the field by writing textbooks, creating multimedia learning resources and publishing in educational journals rather than competing for research grants.

The department already has planks in that platform: master anatomists, textbook and learning resource authors, and proximity to departments heavily involved with clinical anatomy, such as neurosurgery, otolaryngology and radiology.

Additionally, Lehman hopes to devote space to cutting-edge anatomy research and teaching where cadaver labs can continue alongside new 3-D virtual anatomy simulators, computer applications and distance-learning equipment.

“I want the division to serve as a global resource for teaching anatomy,” he said. “I’m thinking of local classes and workshops for physicians and other health professions and distance learning for undergraduate and graduate programs.”

And to keep educators in supply, he’d like to develop a master’s degree and eventually a doctoral program in clinical anatomy.

“We want to see ourselves as a resource for Mississippi in both neuroscience and anatomy,” he said. “And we want to fill that role by partnering with schools, colleges and universities throughout the state.”