Interviews with Scientists: Severn B. Churn
Dr Severn B. Churn (also known as Ben) currently serves as a program director at the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), where he oversees the research activities in one or more parts of the Institute's research funding program, managing a portfolio of grants and contracts, and coordinating program efforts in these specifically defined areas of neuroscience research.
Prior to joining the NINDS, Ben spent over twenty-five years as a primary investigator, characterizing the neuronal mechanisms that are activated following neuronal trauma and pathological excitation. His primary research focused on the electrographic characterization of both acute and chronic brain activity following status epilepticus and traumatic brain injury in both developing, adult aging brains. His laboratory also developed and standardized molecular assays for characterizing the signaling cascades through which altered neuronal activity is modulated.As a tenured faculty member, Dr. Churn also served as the Director for the Molecular Neuroscience Research Facility as well as Director of the Brain Tissue Resource Center in the VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center. He has served on numerous NIH, DOD and foundation review panels, and served as an associate editor or on the editorial boards of several journals. Ben currently serves on multiple professional advisory boards including for the Epilepsy Foundation of America, CURE epilepsy, and the DOD’s CDMRP Program.
Ben received a Bachelor’s degree from the Department of Biology at the College of William and Mary, a Master’ from the Department of Biology at the University of Richmond, and a PhD from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He did a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Neurology at VCU, where he was then brought on as a faculty member.
We spoke to Ben about his current work and what his role involves, his lifelong interest in science, his advice for scientists thinking about pursuing a career outside of academia, and more.
Thanks so much for speaking to us, Ben! Firstly, please do tell us a bit more about your current work...
I am currently a program director at the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The NINDS is one of 27 institutes at the National Institutes for Health. A program director oversees the research activities in one or more parts of the Institute's research funding program, managing a portfolio of grants and contracts, and coordinating program efforts in these specifically defined areas of neuroscience research. My portfolio covers basic neuronal communication as well as epilepsy, concentrating on symptomatic epilepsies and status epilepticus.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work?
Covid-19 has me working from home. However, other than driving to the office, my workday is not substantially changed. I do have a few more video conferences, but that has not been a problem. Unfortunately, most of America is on stay at home, so ongoing studies around the country (and the world) have been halted. Investigators have been writing new papers and grants, but if we don’t get back into the labs, we may be significantly hindered regarding progress.
What was your PhD research focused on?
As I began my graduate work, my father had a severe stroke and displayed the classic progression of delayed neuronal cell loss. This resulted in significant paralysis on his left side. That experience caused me to focus my predoctoral work on the mechanisms that underlie the delayed neuronal loss following stroke. I helped develop a model of global ischemia and studied the post-translational changes in an important neuronal second messenger system, the Calcium and Calmodulin-dependent Protein Kinase II. During my postdoctoral fellowship, I changed my focus to how normal brains develop recurrent seizure activity or epilepsy. My epilepsy interest focused mostly on the development of recurrent seizure activity, called epileptogenesis and the loss of the brain's ability to terminate seizure activity, a medically significant condition called status epilepticus. I still work in these areas today.
Did you always want to be a scientist?
I don’t remember making an overt decision to be a scientist. However, I can say I had an interest in the biological sciences even in junior high school. My early interests were in marine science and I found myself doing English papers on coral reef damage from shipping and particularly oil spills. I thought this interest would evolve into a degree in marine biology and my first scientific publication was on the effect of thermal stress on fish. I studied the calcium response in fish, which led to my interest in calcium changes following stroke after my focus changed.
What advice would you give to PhD students who may be thinking about a career outside of academia?
It takes a certain personality to make it as a bench scientist in today’s environment. Fortunately, there are several satisfying ways to pursue science. After many years of bench research, I have taken a position at the NIH. This position enables me to be actively involved in the scientific community, even though I am not at the bench every day. The NIH has several career paths from which you can choose. If you are interested in industry, there are several lab positions at biotech firms, as well as positions in medical affairs, including medical-science liaison positions, policy, and development. If you wish to have more of an immediate effect, there are several non-profit groups in almost every disease area that do more front-line work.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
There are too many lessons to rank one as the most important. One important skill, however, is to develop a thick skin. This is important when submitting a manuscript for publication, submitting a grant for funding or presenting new work to your colleagues. Peer review is essential to advancing our state of knowledge. Unfortunately, it is very hard on the ego, especially when you receive a rather trenchant review. However, it is a necessary evil to help you improve your focus and conduct the best research possible.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I am most proud of the students I was able to mentor. Helping individuals develop into actively contributing scientists is by far the most satisfying aspect of my research career. This joy has extended into my second career as I get to help young investigators develop independent careers through the multiple funding opportunities at NIH.
I am currently orchestrating a workshop on post-traumatic epilepsy. This is one of the challenging, but very rewarding, parts of my job. I hope to bring together leaders in TBI research as well as epilepsy to develop common ground to accelerate ongoing research in the area. We hope to develop standardized pre-clinical models, common data elements and standardize clinical studies all of which will enhance our ability to research and ultimately treat this devastating condition. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has forced us to delay these efforts, but I am still excited about helping the field move forward.
What do you think are the biggest challenges life scientists face?
There are two major developmental stages that seem to limit a person’s ability to be successful as a scientist. The first is the transition from a post-doctoral fellowship to your first academic position. It is very important to ensure you have productive training that enables you to bring specific skill sets into your faculty position. Unfortunately, productivity is usually measured by publication number and quality. Therefore, make sure you are in a postdoctoral fellowship that will both enable you to develop and publish in many highly regarded journals
The second limiting factor is getting your first R01 renewed. This can be very frustrating after fighting so hard to obtain a good faculty position, getting your first R01, and hopefully by this time receiving tenure. At this stage, you are no longer able to depend upon your advisors and you are too old for some of the early stage investigator help that NIH has provided. Having a supportive departmental chair as well as collaborators is essential at this stage.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
I am answering this questionnaire during the Covid-19 shelter at home era, but even prior to the pandemic I would not be able to describe a typical day. Much of my work week changes between funding cycles.
Early in the cycle, I may spend much of my time helping junior and senior principal investigators develop their research projects. Later, I may be doing progress reviews of investigators that are in the middle of their projects. I am also on several other funding agencies' scientific boards, so I may be helping them develop research programs, or reviewing applications for current funding opportunities. In addition to the above, I may be asked to do a site visit for a major funding program and I may travel to scientific meetings to either keep abreast of new findings in the field or represent NINDS at the function. I like having this kind of variety in my career.
What does your typical day look like at the moment, during this unprecedented time?
Again, much of my day looks the same, except that I haven’t been on a site visit, or attending any meetings in person. I also don’t have to drive to the office, but I am able to do my work from home. One interesting aspect of the times, there are a lot of CNS consequences of Covid infections and keeping abreast of these has been interesting.— horrifying, but interesting.
Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most?
I have several hobbies when I get the time to pursue them. Offshore fishing, playing guitar and cycling are some of my most passionate pursuits. I also enjoy cooking, which comes in handy after a successful fishing trip.
If you weren’t working for the NIH, what do you think you’d be doing now?
I cannot imagine doing something else right now. I was in the very early stages of getting my retirement plans in order when I was approached about my current position. Perhaps I would be working in an encore job in a bait shop in Florida. I have a condo there and plan to end up fishing my final days away. Working part-time would allow me the time to pursue all the hobbies I listed above.
What is it about your field of work that gets you most excited?
Learning something that nobody else in the world knows about. There are so many new discoveries and keeping abreast of the advances can be quite exciting. A very close second would be helping new scientists navigate a tumultuous field.
Who has been your greatest role model, and why?
I have had several mentors that have had great influence on my career. As for role models, I would have to go outside of science and say Sir Winston Churchill. His ability to lead a country through the blitz and other crises is quite inspiring.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
In the days of Covid-19, I would have to say toilet paper. I wish someone could discover where it has all gone!
I am very excited about progress outside of my field. The development of novel immunotherapies to treat cancer is quite exciting. Inside my field, there are several novel discoveries that are being pursued that may enable us to prevent seizures after head trauma and stroke. These are in the early stages but look very promising.
As for the greatest of all time, I would have to say the discovery of antibiotics. I would say that this discovery transformed the world and allowed for many of the other discoveries we enjoy today.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Ben!
You can connect with Ben on LinkedIn here: linkedin.com/in/severnchurn/
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