April 5-11, 2002
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To the point
with Barry Condron
Barry Condron
Photo by Jenny Gerow

By Fariss Samarrai

Barry Condron was told to be in L.A. in four days.

“It was frightening,” he said. “They took me into a room, asked me questions.”
The questions were about his research proposal for a W.M. Keck Foundation grant for Distinguished Young Scholars in Medical Research.

“I had no sense of success from that meeting,” the 38-year-old U.Va. neurobiologist said. “Apparently, they liked my answers.”

The Keck Foundation went on to award Condron a five-year, $1 million grant to use in whatever way he sees fit.

What will you do with all that money?

I could go on a very long vacation. But I will use the funds to do the neurobiological research I have always dreamed of.

What are you studying?

How neurons form their precise, connected networks in the developing brain. If we can understand this, we could possibly understand the process of neuronal regeneration. This basic science could lead to eventual therapies for brain injuries or diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s.

How do you investigate the development of neuron networks?

I use the fruit fly as my model because this insect has a very simple neurological system. It is a version of the system in many organisms, including humans. I’m using genetically altered fruit fly neurons to study and manipulate the formation of neuron network connections. I plan to image the neurons as they grow and develop sophisticated computer models that will hopefully not only mimic the real thing, but will also predict the development of neuron networks. If we can do that, we could possibly simulate how parts of the brain develop.

You teach a basic course in biology for non-science majors. Why?

These students will go on to careers in law, government, industry. They will have a great deal of influence, so they better have some good basic understanding of science and the issues involving science. We live in the biomedical age, which is sure to have at least as much effect on our lives as the digital age. I think it’s important for scientists like myself to talk to and educate non-scientists. We need a general population that can think deeply and intelligently about bioethical issues. Besides, non-science majors are a pleasure to work with. Often they come up with concepts about the long-term consequences of biomedical research that I had completely missed.

Why do you think the Keck Foundation regards you as a distinguished young scholar?

Well the “young” part is questionable. On a recent visit to an elementary school as part of Brain Awareness Week, the kids started a guessing game about my age; they decided it must be between 16 and 100. I left them guessing. But I believe the Keck Foundation recognized that the experiments I proposed were different. There are very many people conducting biomedical research and the key is either to beat the crowd at its own game or find new territory. I want to try the latter. The key is to start a new wave, but not to become a quack.


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