South African neuroscientist makes her first visit to University of Massachusetts Medical School

By Dennis Nealon

 Russell

Vivienne Russell, left, and Jean King

Symbolically at least, Vivienne Russell’s flight from her home and work in South Africa to the University of Massachusetts Medical School – more than 8,000 miles – is not unlike the exceptional distance that she has covered in her prolific and distinguished research career.

“I began as a rocket scientist,” says Russell. “I can call myself a rocket scientist.”

She laughs, but it’s true. At the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, in the late 1970s, long before changing course and focusing her research on neurodegenerative disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Russell wrote her thesis about the epoxy resin on the nose of rockets.

She has gone far since then – a distance marked by her path-breaking work, membership in several international and national research societies and the more than 120 articles she has authored and co-authored in science journals.

This is Russell’s first trip to Worcester, Mass., and maiden visit to the UMMS Department of Psychiatry (Oct. 10-11), where she and Jean King are making connections between their research and their involvement in an initiative called Increasing Women in Neuroscience.

King, PhD, is a UMMS psychiatry professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Psychiatry who directs the department’s Center for Comparative Neuroimaging. She and Russell met at a conference in Italy in 2011 and found that they have much in common; more than their considerable research accomplishments and the hurdles they’ve had to cross to get where they are in their careers. Both are passionate about the role of women in science, and each has used rat models in their work – King’s focused on brain imaging and behavior; Russell’s on behavior – specifically the links between stress and maternal separation and ADHD.

“Research-wise,” says King, “there are all sorts of possibilities for us to work together and share our work.”

Russell agrees. She says she’s looking forward to collaborating with King and her UMMS colleagues, but is glad for now to just share ideas with her peers. Back home in the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town, Russell is accustomed to working independently.

“I’ve got no one right there to discuss my ideas with; no one to talk to about the next experiment except for the students who are working with me.”

Russell is studying Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders, the effects of mother/infant separation on rat pups, and the effects of stress in the early stages of development. She is also collaborating with the chair of the psychology department at the University of Cape Town on research into anxiety disorders. She said her “hobbies” include research into the impact that exercise has on ADHD and stress.