Feb. 6, 2018 — The McKnight Brain Institute DeWeese Auditorium bubbled with excited chatter Thursday afternoon as students and faculty filled the 162-capacity room to attend the first annual Distinguished Lecture Series.
Organized by eight students in the UF Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences, the series aims to bring prominent researchers and scientists to campus to begin an informative dialogue with students. For the inaugural lecturer, the student committee recruited Dan Littman, M.D., Ph.D., a professor at the New York University School of Medicine and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute whose work in virology and immunology has been cited more than 58,000 times.
Littman began his lecture on the influence of the microbiota on T-cell immunity with an address to the crowd, some of whom stood in the back and leaned against the walls to listen, as there were no seats left by the time the talk began.
“I’ve never been welcomed by so many students at one time,” he said. “This level of unparalleled enthusiasm is something I’ve never experienced.”
Littman commended the lecture series organizers for their commitment to bringing high-profile research directly to their campus.
“You’re doing something right here,” he said. “Students should be front and center in the research experience.”
Organizer Clayton Santiago, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of ophthalmology at the UF College of Medicine, said the series lends students a rare chance to hear from researchers they would otherwise only read about in textbooks and journals.
“We want to give students the opportunity to have face-time with high-profile scientists, to learn about their career paths and research findings and see how they did it,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
Littman’s lecture discussed his rich history of multidisciplinary research and discovery of the cellular-level mechanisms that contribute to several autoimmune and neuronal disorders. Filipa Moniz, a graduate research assistant in the UF College of Medicine, said students studying a variety of fields will benefit from learning both the research and life experiences of Littman, who has contributed to more than 300 publications.
“The multidisciplinary aspects of Dr. Littman’s research will attract students from across the Health Science Center,” she said. “Even though Dr. Littman is a high-profile scientist now, he was once a student with all the same dreams and struggles as us.”
Casey Keuthan, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of ophthalmology, said the long hours her committee has put into the series has afforded them new skills in communications, organization, advertising and promotion. She said Littman’s travel expenses and an honorarium were provided by the UF Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences.
“We want to get students involved in all the planning and organization of these events,” she said. “Dr. Thomas Rowe, associate dean for graduate education and the director of the graduate program in biomedical sciences, and the program have been so supportive, but at the end of the day, this is our job. From the ground up, this has been student-run.”
Keuthan said after more than a year of work, she and her colleagues created a sustainable framework on which future committee members can build, ensuring a continuous stream of established lecturers visiting the UF Health Science Center campus.
“Even after we’ve graduated and moved on, we hope students will take this project on and continue to recruit scientists with pedigrees to our campus,” she says. “Thursday’s seminar went better than we expected, and I can’t wait to see how this series evolves.”