BOZEMAN – Frances Lefcort didn’t set out to become a neuroscientist, but the Montana State University professor and department head isn’t too surprised that she did.
“I feel like neurological disease has plagued my life. I find it fascinating,” said Lefcort, who will explain more when she gives the fourth lecture in the Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series.
Lefcort will speak from 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, in MSU’s Museum of the Rockies. A reception will follow. Lefcort’s lecture on “What studying neural development can teach us about neural disease” is part of a six-part series that is free and open to the public and features MSU faculty who are distinguished for their scholarship and creativity. The series is part of MSU’s Year of Engaged Leadership, which highlights the university’s events and activities that develop leadership skills of students, faculty, staff and community members. The lectures are suited for professionals and lay people alike.
“I love thinking about the nervous system,” Lefcort said. “Besides the origin of the cosmos, it’s the next most absorbing question.”
Lefcort, who conducts research while heading MSU’s Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, oversees a lab that investigates the cellular and molecular mechanisms that lead to the formation of the nervous system. The lab specifically looks at signals that affect the peripheral nervous system. The PNS connects the central nervous system to limbs and organs. It consists of nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord.
She has long felt she dodged a neurological bullet that ricocheted through her family, Lefcort said. Two first cousins on her mother’s side died from a rare condition called FD, or Familial dysautonomia. Three cousins on her father’s side have Fragile X syndrome. Her father, a former engineer, now has Alzheimer’s disease.
“In retrospect, it was kind of inevitable that I would study neurology,” Lefcort said.
She became interested in the topic after her family learned that her cousins with FD were often sick because they had a mutation to a single gene, Lefcort said. FD made it hard for them to get out of bed in the morning because their bodies couldn’t regulate their blood pressure and respiration rates as they tried to move from a horizontal to vertical position. They frequently vomited. One cousin once injured his finger, but he couldn’t feel that his finger was barely attached to his hand. He died at 52 and his sister at 27, which was far longer than expected because of the care they received from their mother, a nurse.
Her early focus was on “why” rather than a cure, Lefcort said. What made her cousins’ nervous systems develop differently from hers?
As she went to college and became involved in research even as an undergraduate, her knowledge about the nervous system grew as did her list of questions, Lefcort said. She learned, for example, that the body has 100 billion nerve cells or neurons, but they’re not all the same. She wondered how the nerves make the proper connections and how they knew which circuits to join.
Lefcort came to MSU almost 20 years ago and now investigates those and other questions in Cooley Laboratory, the state-of-the-art facility that she said has made it easier for her to collaborate with others involved in biomedical research at MSU. She noted that one welcome newcomer who will serve as a catalyst for biomedical research is Renee Reijo Pera, who came to MSU from Stanford University. Pera is MSU’s new vice president for research, creativity and technology transfer. She will also continue her renowned stem cell research in both the Department of Cell Bioscience and Neuroscience and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at MSU.
Lefcort said one goal of her own research is to understand the peripheral nervous system and eventually develop therapeutic strategies to prevent devastating diseases like FD. Her most recent publication focused on the genetic mutation behind FD and ran in the scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Another major theme for Lefcort is the role of women in science.
“That’s also been a really rewarding process for me,” Lefcort said.
Married and the mother of two children, Lefcort said most of the researchers in her lab are women and moms. She feels she has created an unusual culture in her lab, where the goal is to do the best science possible and offer the flexibility that supports family life.
“Even though we’re competing with the big guys, if you have to take your kids to the dentist, that’s perfectly legitimate,” Lefcort said.
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org