Virginia Tech’s proposed School of Neuroscience has hired its first faculty member, J. Michael Bowers, who joins the university as an assistant professor.

Bowers previously was at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in Baltimore, where he served as a postdoctoral fellow with its neuroscience program. There, he made a novel discovery of a sex difference in the expression of a gene known to be involved in language and brain development. The characteristic was found in both humans and rats, said Bowers.

Bowers earned dual bachelor’s degrees in psychology and biology from Oklahoma State University; a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of New Mexico; and a doctorate in psychology from Oklahoma State University. After graduating with his Ph.D., Bowers switched to animal-centered research from human-based research while at the University of Maryland.

“This switch enabled me to learn an entirely new set of research techniques,” said Bowers. “These new skills, coupled with my previous expertise, has enabled me to conduct a wide variety of experiments focusing on the study of sex differences in the brain.”

Bowers’ Virginia Tech lab will focus on understanding two fundamental questions: 

  • How do genes and sex hormones contribute to the development of the neural circuits responsible for higher cognitive functions such as language? 
  • What drives the sex difference in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism?

His research goal: To understand why a gender bias exists in autism patients, as well as those with other language-related disorders. Bowers is also interested in developing therapeutic treatments that can help individuals with communication deficits.

Bowers has 10 years of teaching experience, including advanced-placement high school biology. His undergraduates and graduate level courses include introduction to psychology and neuroscience, biostatistics, experimental methodology, and language neurobiology. He has won grants from the National Research Service Award, National Institutes of Health, and a Hartwell Foundation Fellowship.

He won the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Postdoctoral Scholar of the Year award in 2013, and its Neuroscience Future Mentor of the Year award in 2014. He has authored or co-authored 11 published papers.

The proposed School of Neuroscience promises to be a unique program in the nation, one that will study not only disorders of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury, but also the mind itself, including decision-making, behavior, and creativity. To be housed in the College of Science, the new school was approved in fall 2015 by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. It is now before the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, which will soon consider the school’s approval.

The school’s executive director, Harald Sontheimer, called Bowers’ hiring another first step in creating a school that will serve as a draw to scores of undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in studying all aspects of neuroscience. “Mike has a hunger for learning how the mind works, and how people, as well as animals, communicate with one another,” said Sontheimer. “When our students meet Dr. Bowers in the classroom and lab, they too will capture that curiosity.”

Sontheimer said a second faculty member will join the school later this winter, with an expected roster of six to eight faculty members by August 2016. By 2017, the number of faculty could be at 15. Already, more than 200 undergraduate students have selected neuroscience as their major.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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