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Neuroscientist Takes on New Role Building VA Tech’s Biomedical Research

In January, Sarah Clinton stepped into a new role at Virginia Tech as Health Sciences and Technology associate vice president for planning and strategy.

The position, based at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke, builds on her considerable experience in biomedical research on mental health and as an educator and administrator who helped facilitate growth of the School of Neuroscience, according to Michael Friedlander, executive vice president for the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology.

“We are very excited to have Sarah join our team. She is a person who has deep scientific research roots and appreciation for the scientific enterprise but also a strong sense of commitment to support the advancement of the careers of others,” Friedlander said. “In addition, she has an eye to the future and will be a great contributor as we go forward with planning and advancing the greater biomedical and health science enterprise at Virginia Tech.”

Clinton will also be co-director of the Integrated Health Sciences Research Program, a selective academic program that incorporates innovative biomedical science classes with experiential learning opportunities for undergraduates interested in biomedical and health science careers, including basic, translational and clinical research.

How would you describe your new position at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute (FBRI)?

Half of my role is going to be focused inward, supporting faculty and new initiatives. This year, FBRI hired eight new faculty members who need to establish labs and ramp up support teams. By this summer, there will be more than 40 primary faculty members. My initial goals are connecting with them, finding out what’s going well, and asking where they need support. For the new researchers, how do we help them launch and be successful? A big part of my directive is ensuring that research faculty are thriving.

The other half is externally focused. I had a taste of that my second day on the job when I was invited into a meeting with [community business leader] Heywood Fralin, Mike Friedlander, and legislators who were here for an event. It was exciting to hear them talking about how we frame the work we’re doing as an institute. There are so many different partners we work with — across Virginia Tech, with Carilion Clinic in Roanoke and Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., with the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, and many others. Our philanthropic and community advocates are critical to our success, as are government partners locally and in Richmond. There are so many things happening right now, and I am excited to be a part of that.

How has your scientific background shaped your academic career?

I am a neuroscientist by training, and my passion and research interest has been mental health. How does stress affect the brain and nervous system? Why do some people who experience stress develop things like depression and anxiety while others don’t?

I’ve also been interested in brain development. It was exciting and interesting. Over time, though, I started thinking, where else can I make an impact? And I started to land more on teaching — I’ve taught thousands of students — and mentoring other faculty.

What initially brought you to Virginia Tech?

In 2016, I was one of six faculty hired for Virginia Tech’s new School of Neuroscience in the College of Science. The school has since grown from six to 23 faculty and from 30 undergraduate majors to more than 800. After focusing exclusively on research early in my career, it was fun being part of that growth, recruiting for the expansion, and helping others launch.

One project I spearheaded was called Assistant Professor School. As scientists, we’re trained to do terrific science. But at times you’re not trained to be a manager. With that work, I found a new passion for mentoring new faculty and supporting career development.

Shifting from the research to the service and administrative side of the enterprise, I understood the pieces of the puzzle that had to come together for things to work well.

What has struck you about the change?

Early on, I saw the culture of support and camaraderie at the institute — a sense of genuine caring. I also didn’t realize, for an enterprise that’s not that old, how big it is. I was aware from a scientific perspective, but when you see the 40 faculty and labs and all the people staffing the labs and the administrative support behind that, you get a real sense of the size and scope of the operation.

The other part I’ve been impressed with is the community engagement, from the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lectures to Brain School and other outreach. I knew Virginia Tech had a positive impact in the community, but I’m impressed with how much we’re doing. It’s easy for academics and researchers to be in their bubble. I was excited by how many people came to Brain School in March — these are the things that help us connect with the community and share the powerful work happening here.

There’s a culture of engagement that trickles down throughout the whole operation, in collaboration with the medical school, and with translational biology, medicine, and health graduate students. And with FBRI’s research that crosses cardiac health, health behaviors, exercise medicine research and cancer research, I have the opportunity to move beyond neuroscience. I’m excited to be starting this new chapter.

By Leigh Anne Kelley

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