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Investigating Fragile X Syndrome

As a student, Dr. Aimee (Vinson) Franklin never envisioned her career leading to a future in research. While in college and shortly after graduating from SEU in 2007, she was determined to take the MCAT and get into medical school.

Aimee worked hard in order to graduate from Southeastern in three-and-a-half years with a bachelor’s degree in biology/pre-medicine. She moved home after graduation and worked delivering newspapers to save up enough money to take the MCAT. Although determined to take the MCAT, Aimee decided to take the GRE instead, at the urging of Dr. Debbie Hazelbaker, dean of the College of Natural & Health Sciences.

DSC_LR-9356She sent her GRE results to three schools: the University of Alabama–Birmingham (UAB) and two in Florida. In February of 2008, she received an email from UAB encouraging her to apply for the graduate program in integrated biomedical sciences. She also applied for the Howard Hughes Fellowship. Two weeks later, Aimee was accepted into the program and also received the fellowship.

“I didn’t go into graduate school knowing what I wanted to study. I hadn’t planned to do any of this. It was all really God’s favor,” said Aimee.

Now, almost nine years later, Aimee is a promising investigator of fragile X syndrome, the most commonly inherited form of autism. In addition to her research, Aimee joined the faculty at Southeastern in 2014 as an assistant professor of biology, teaching anatomy and physiology. With a passion for research, she hopes to integrate it into student learning and the courses she teaches.

Aimee is currently working with the College of Natural & Health Sciences to develop a Center for Undergraduate Research in Biomedical Sciences at Southeastern. Plans call for a three-phase process. She has a verbal commitment from her alma mater, the University of Alabama in Birmingham, to donate mouse brain tissue for students to use for research. The brain tissue will include that of fragile X syndrome, Alzheimer’s and depression. The first phase, which is pending funding, would set up small-scale experiment labs for students, where Aimee would oversee and train students to research the various tissues and syndromes. In the second phase of the program, students would perform imaging, enabling them to conduct experiments on biological tissues using advanced imaging techniques. The final phase would offer students the opportunity to study live animals.

“When I came to Southeastern, I did not expect everyone to be so excited about my research, but they were. We can do great science here, and I am thrilled for what is to come,” said Aimee.

“I feel extremely blessed to have the opportunity to return to Southeastern and work alongside so many of the faculty that influenced not only my career but also my personal life and walk with Christ.”Aimee’s passion for research developed as a student at UAB. In 2009, she joined the laboratory of Dr. Lori McMahon in the Physiology and Biophysics Department, where she studied molecular mechanisms underlying cognitive deficits in fragile X syndrome. It was as part of Dr. McMahon’s laboratory that Aimee developed her interest in fragile X syndrome. “I owe a great deal of who I am, my passion for what I study and my research to Lori,” she said.

As part of the laboratory of Dr. McMahon, she researched a mouse model of fragile X syndrome. The brains of the mice were removed to study their electrical activity. Through her research, Aimee and her collaborators found that the Glycogen Synthase Kinase-3 (GSK-3) protein had too much activity in selective brain regions. They were able to block the protein with lithium and reverse the abnormal electrical activity and some of the learning deficits. Their findings showed that the blockage of the molecule GSK-3 reversed behavioral insufficiencies. Due to these findings and other studies implicating GSK-3 in disease pathologies, drug companies are now interested in developing selective GSK-3 inhibitors that will be safe to use for humans.

In the midst of her research, Aimee married her high school sweetheart, Steven, in 2009. During her time at UAB, she received several local and national fellowships, including the Civitan Emerging Scholars Award, the Cognition and Cognitive Disorders Training Grant Fellowship and the Ruth l. Kirshstein National Research Service Award. She also published a paper while doing her lab rotations, which is not common for students to do. One of her articles published in Biological Psychology was one of the most cited articles in that journal in 2014.

Aimee successfully defended her dissertation in March of 2014 and was awarded a PhD in Neuroscience. Soon after she accepted a postdoctoral research position at the National Institute of Mental Health in Baltimore, Maryland, she found out that a position had opened at Southeastern for a professor of anatomy and physiology. Two weeks before she was going to start the job in Baltimore, she accepted the position at Southeastern.

DSC_RL-4772 copyAimee plans to continue her research at SEU, which aims to better understand cognitive deficits in neurological disorders in hopes of identifying novel therapeutic strategies in diseases for the treatment of fragile X syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. She plans to continue her research in collaboration with UAB.

“I feel extremely blessed to have the opportunity to return to Southeastern and work alongside so many of the faculty that influenced not only my career but also my personal life and walk with Christ. It is my hope that I can inspire and guide my students with the same wisdom, humor and humility that so many of my professors displayed,” said Aimee.

Since moving to Lakeland, Aimee and her husband have welcomed their first child, Silas.