From the desk of President Leslie K. Guice
Faculty Feature: Dr. Teresa Murray: Engineering the Brain
Dr. Teresa Murray joined Louisiana Tech as an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the Fall of 2011 after completing a postdoctoral training program at Yale University. Teresa comes from a long line of teachers and has always known that being an educator was her calling. Yet, she wanted to have a life of making discoveries and she also wanted to help people. How could she balance these seemingly disparate avocations? She was watching Scientific American Frontiers in 1988 and was amazed to see a paraplegic with a few wires implanted into his legs get up out of his wheelchair and walk. For her, this was an answer to her prayers about what career to choose. She enrolled in an undergraduate program in the Bioengineering Program at Arizona State University to learn about neural engineering and then entered their PhD program. After she graduated in 2009, she received a postdoctoral research appointment at Yale. Over a decade after beginning her journey, Teresa accepted a faculty position at Louisiana Tech where she is fulfilling her earlier aspirations. She is now teaching and has eleven undergraduate and graduate students working in her research lab on medically translatable neuroscience research. During her undergraduate studies at ASU, Teresa assisted in a lab that studied how the brain takes clues from the environment and turns it into movement and also how it can adapt to changing circumstances. She trained rats to listen to high, medium, and low tones and then respond by pushing a specific lever to get a food reward. Later, she helped researchers implant tiny, hair-like wires into the area of the brain that processes sound. She then ran the same tests with the sounds turned off and instead used small electrical currents sent through the wires at different frequencies to serve as the clues for which lever to press for a reward. They all performed better with stimulation. She now believes her mother’s old saying that “things get lost in the gap between the ears and the brain.” While Teresa does not believe there is a physical gap, it does pose interesting questions about attention and how the brain processes incoming signals. That question formed the basis of what she did next in graduate school, which was to study a subtype of neurotransmitter proteins that, as she and her colleagues demonstrated, is involved in attention and learning. During one of her early presentations to her lab mates in graduate school, Teresa created and showed a sequence of neurons lighting up in the brain as they communicated one of the commands to press a lever. When she proposed that we could use voltage-sensitive dyes to observe this communication in live mice, one of the researchers in the group thought she was a bit naïve. However, a few years later, she met an Assistant Professor from Yale that had tiny, needle-thin lenses that could be inserted into the brain to peer into the depths of a live, anesthetized mouse brain without hurting it. This was the device she needed to enable visualization of neurons lighting up as they communicate with each other in a live mouse. She asked if she could visit the lab to learn the technique. Instead, she ended up with a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab and got the opportunity to make some improvements in the design of the lenses. However, one shortcoming was that the images could only be taken in a single imaging session because the lenses were only temporarily inserted. Thus changes in neuronal communication that occur slowly over time, as in neurodegenerative disease or after a brain injury, could not be observed. Since coming to Louisiana Tech, Teresa and her students have developed a lens that can be permanently implanted. The lenses do not hurt the mice because there are no pain sensors inside the brain. Next, they will study the changes in brain cells and their communication before and after a mild brain injury in mice. Their tools are mice that have fluorescently labeled cells, or mice that will have a small injection of dye that will light up to show how brain cells are communicating. They hope to identify windows of time when administering specific therapeutic compounds will be most beneficial. Another potential therapeutic is completely natural. They are adult stems cells that reside in small areas deep within the brain and they can turn into any other type of brain cell. When brain cells die or become severely damaged, as they do in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases or after a traumatic brain injury or stroke, these stem cells might be able to replace the damaged cells. Teresa’s lab is working on directing these cells to divide, travel to the site of injury or degradation, and then turn into neurons. They have a strain of mouse that when these stem cells divide and begin turning into neurons, they produce a green fluorescent protein. This is the same protein that helped three distinguished scientists receive a Nobel Prize a few years ago. During graduate school, Teresa did not have many opportunities for developing her teaching abilities in classroom teaching, so she used her position as the Student President of a national biomedical engineering honor society, Alpha Eta Mu Beta to create some opportunities. With the encouragement of the Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), she created an educational workshop for students at the BMES Annual Meeting. After running them for three years, she handed it off to the next Student President and created another session to educate students about how public policy affects them and how they could, and should, affect public policy. For this, she teamed up with the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) which is an umbrella organization for several biomedical engineering societies and has the esteemed AIMBE College of Fellows. She continues to chair this annual session. Lastly, as a postdoctoral fellow she took this wealth of accumulated knowledge about public policy, ethics, and other broader issues surrounding biomedical devices, and turned it into a science course for non-majors at Yale entitled “Biomedical Innovations and Their Impacts.” She taught this course at Tech during her first year here and was encouraged to teach it again, which she has. Students learn how to evaluate the social, economic, legal, ethical, and healthcare-related impacts of diseases, injuries, and the innovations meant to treat these maladies. One of Teresa’s greatest joys is to see a group of here students gathered after class debating one of the issues discussed in class. Teresa is realizing her earlier aspirations to teach, make discoveries, and help people, and we are very happy that she is doing that at Louisiana Tech. She is not only an excellent teacher and mentor to students but is also mentoring other women to be successful in their academic careers.