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The Research, Education, and Leadership Legacy of Cynthia Forehand

July 10, 2023 by Jennifer Nachbur

As a young math and science wiz, first-generation college student Cynthia Forehand admits she had a rocky start to her academic career, but an invitation to work in her advisor’s lab “was the beginning of a lifelong passion for inquiry-driven research,” she says, and led to more than 35 years of service as a biomedical scientist, educator, mentor, and leader at the University of Vermont.

Forehand (center) with Larner Dean Richard Page, M.D. (left), and Joel Glover, Ph.D., professor of molecular medicine at the University of Oslo at the Cynthia J. Forehand, Ph.D. Research Symposium on June 16, 2023. (Photo: David Seaver)

As a young math and science wiz, first-generation college student Cynthia Forehand had a rocky start to her academic career, unsure of how the subjects she loved could translate into a career. But an invitation to work in her advisor’s lab “was the beginning of a lifelong passion for inquiry-driven research,” she says now. The experience led to a decades-long career in neuroscience and more than 35 years of service as a biomedical scientist, educator, mentor, and leader at the University of Vermont. Forehand was officially retired from UVM as of July 1, 2023.

Forehand’s journey began at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she first conducted research – and coauthored her first publication – on hemoglobin switching during development and in response to anemia. She also had her first teaching experience as an undergraduate teaching assistant in a physiology course. Graduating with a zoology major, she says she “applied only to programs that had broad interdisciplinary approaches because I didn't know what I actually wanted to do.” For graduate school, she switched to neurobiology and earned a doctoral degree at the University of North Carolina (UNC) where she studied spinal cord development and regeneration with a renowned developmental neuroscientist. Following completion of her doctorate, she secured a postdoctoral position at Washington University in St. Louis, where she completed studies of innervation patterns in autonomic neurons.

Each of Forehand’s faculty mentors provided critical support that significantly aided her academic journey. She credits her undergraduate advisor, Russel Meints, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at Oregon State University, graduate mentor Paul Farel, Ph.D., professor emeritus at UNC Chapel Hill, and postdoctoral mentor Dale Purves, M.D., research professor emeritus at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences at Duke University, with fostering her ability to, respectively, conduct research, work independently, and develop a strong work ethic embracing creativity.

Forehand says she also valued the opportunity to learn and exchange ideas with her close-knit group of cross-departmental postdoctoral science peers, who encouraged her to incorporate the autonomic nervous system into her research focus on neural development.

“[I] thrived on precise anatomical studies injecting a histological marker into very tiny preganglionic axons and exploring their connections with autonomic ganglion cells via electron microscopic analysis,” she says.

Launching an Academic Career at UVM

The move proved pivotal, and caught the attention of Rodney Parsons, Ph.D., founding and sole chair of UVM’s Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, where one of the core research themes was autonomic physiology. He recruited Forehand for a faculty position in 1987.

"She was an outstanding candidate [and] chose and completed very difficult projects to ask fundamental questions,” says Parsons, a professor emeritus who in 2012 co-led the merger of anatomy and neurobiology and neurology to become the Department of Neurological Sciences. He saw other academic possibilities in Forehand’s future, and became a valued mentor and collaborator, both regarding teaching and research.

Given her extensive neuroscience training, Parsons tasked her with directing their department’s neuroscience course for first-year medical students shortly after she joined the faculty. “I have always been very proud of this course, and its success is really due to Cindy’s hard work and dedication,” he says.

A Teacher, Mentor & Curriculum Innovator

It wasn’t long after that teaching – and mentoring – were added to the list of Forehand’s major passions, alongside research.

“The flash of recognition in a student's eye when a difficult concept crystallizes for them – and the ‘this is awesome’ response from both classroom and research students as they either learn or demonstrate how the nervous system functions,” are the aspects of teaching that Forehand says have been a great source of joy.

It was no surprise when in 1996, Forehand joined the Curriculum Task Force – the first of many significant roles that proved invaluable to the successful transformation of the old Vermont Generalist Curriculum into the Vermont Integrated Curriculum (VIC) for medical students. Forehand describes herself as “an early adopter” of the concept of integrating the curriculum around systems instead of disciplinary courses, so in addition to planning, she worked to get faculty buy-in for the new approach. She served on two iterations of the Curriculum Design Committee, the second of which she co-chaired. In addition to directing the Neural Science course before and after the 2002 launch of the VIC and until 2018, Forehand was also appointed director of the Foundations level of the VIC, a position she held from 2000 to 2011, and served on the VIC board of directors and Operations Committee.

The Neural Science course achieved the highest ratings in the Foundations curriculum from the Class of 2007 during Forehand’s leadership.

“Her teaching contributions have been really extensive and diverse,” says Parsons. “She has taught residents, medical students, graduate students, and undergraduates in multiple venues and in many different programs and departments.”

Forehand has advised five postdoctoral fellows/research associates, served as dissertation advisor for four doctoral students, served on 19 dissertation committees, and supervised research rotations for 13 doctoral students. In addition, she has been an advisor for 10 undergraduate Honors College theses and a research supervisor for more than 20 additional UVM undergraduates and six summer research students from outside UVM affiliated with initiatives to increase diversity in science.

The benefit of mentorship, explains Forehand, is that it fosters independence – a key achievement in any scientist’s career.

Margaret Vizzard, Ph.D., professor of neurological sciences and Forehand’s long-time UVM colleague, says “Dr. Forehand brings a student-centered approach to everything she does, advocating tirelessly for excellence in graduate education while promoting interdisciplinary and innovative forms of scholarship, research, and curricula. She has contributed significantly to the research training of countless undergraduate, medical, and graduate students while making substantial contributions to science.”

In January 2023, Forehand was honored at the Larner Teaching Academy's Teaching and Educational Excellence Awards event with the Frederick C. Morin III, MD Educational Leadership Award, which recognizes an exemplary and sustained record of service in educational leadership, committee service, and administration.

A Lasting Impact on the Future of Neuroscience Research

In the lab, Forehand’s research sought to understand how connections in the nervous system are made and to determine how they may be altered by disease and injury. In particular, she examined the mechanisms that control how neuron connections develop and regenerate and focused on organizational principles in the spinal cord and autonomic nervous system.

“All of the projects she completed here were complex and required significant quantitative analysis,” explains Parsons, who, in addition to serving as a valued mentor and collaborator, “was a great sounding board for my ideas as I successfully sought research funding,” says Forehand.

Over the years, her work was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and American Heart Association, and she published in highly regarded journals. She and Parsons reached great heights together, successfully collaborating on the application for an NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences Center of Biomedical Research Excellence grant, on which they were co-principal investigators and were initially awarded in 2001.

“Cindy was instrumental to the success of all aspects of the grant award, especially the formation of the multiuser research core facilities and acquisition of sophisticated equipment for these facilities that made grants and projects of many investigators across the campus more competitive and productive,” explains Parsons.

The initial grant, and two subsequent renewals supported neuroscience research at UVM for 15 years.

“That award and its long-term effects on neuroscience researchers at UVM is one of the things I am most proud of as I look back on my career here,” says Forehand.

Leading at UVM

Despite her relatively heavy load of research and education responsibilities, Forehand’s service was not limited to the College of Medicine. She was actively involved in UVM’s Faculty Senate and in 2010, was appointed associate dean of the Graduate College, a position she held for three years before taking on the interim dean role and then, in 2014, being appointed dean of the Graduate College. Her contributions included improving and streamlining policies and procedures related to graduate education and support, playing a significant role in shaping the algorithms and other integrated mechanisms to provide continued support for UVM’s graduate programs and graduate students under the Incentive-Based Budgeting (IBB) Model, ensuring the continuation of interdisciplinary graduate programs and other student opportunities under IBB.

“As dean, she achieved a 25 percent increase in graduate student enrollment – including a 186 percent increase in graduate students of color – as well as increases in tuition assistantship and benefits for graduate students and postgraduate learners and an overall increase in the number of programs and certificates offered by the Graduate College,” says Vizzard.

Forehand also devised and implemented successful initiatives to expand graduate student and postdoctoral benefits to include parental leave, normalizing benefits for postdoctoral fellows and associates and establishing standard postdoctoral salaries across UVM.

“I am proud of a career where I have been able to identify problems to solve and find solutions that have furthered the pursuit of science, educated and nurtured students, and supported the development of faculty and staff,” Forehand says. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at UVM, am grateful for the opportunity to succeed in multiple areas and note that mentors and collaborators have been critical to my success as a scientist, teacher, and leader.”

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