graphic of a face with mental health diagnoses written on top

The heart behind her science

Nicole Baganz

Nicole Baganz, Ph.D. ’09, works as a research assistant professor in biomedical science at Florida Atlantic University. She’s studying how changes in the immune system can have a depressive effect on mood and is helping create the university’s first Brain Institute.

Nicole Baganz was always interested in science, receiving her first microscope in second grade. It’s just that she wasn’t always that good at it, she said.

So she embraced the arts, and grew up playing the piano. She studied dance for 20 years. A teacher told her to forget her pursuit of the sciences and study English instead. That’s about the time she decided her future, and it was going to be in front of a microscope.

Years later, she’s embraced both passions in a journey that has taken her to the hospitals of China, the research labs of Vanderbilt, the rhythms of music and the depths of the human brain.

“I never saw my life taking this course,” she said. “The more we can experience in life, the more enriching our lives are and our communities are. Every single person we meet has a story to tell that you can learn from. If we stay in a bubble, we’re not going to learn all that we can and make ourselves better human beings. Life is an adventure.”

Growing up, though, Nicole was the reserved and safe one in her family. Her sister was the adventurer, the risk taker. But drug addiction and depression took their toll; her sister died of an overdose as Nicole was finishing her undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.

Nicole’s life veered sharply. She decided to move back home to be near her grieving family. While there, she studied massage therapy.

“I wanted to work with people instead of being in a lab, which is funny considering where I am now,” she said.

Then a flier from Midwest College of Oriental Medicine appeared on her desk and piqued her interest. It advertised a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine.

“So I taught anatomy and physiology in two different massage therapy schools and a nursing college to put myself through school, and that’s when I realized I really loved teaching physiology and I was good at it,” she said.

After getting her master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine, becoming nationally certified in acupuncture and Oriental medicine and traveling to China for an internship, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in physiology, with an emphasis in neuroscience at UT Health San Antonio. She wanted to unlock the mysteries of the brain that lead to the mood disorders that devastated her sister.

“With my sister’s story, I specifically was interested in neuroscience,” she said. “They accepted me not as a Ph.D. student, but as a master’s student because my background was very nontraditional.”

By the end of her first semester, she had proven her high school teacher wrong. Her grades put her at the top of her class, and she was moved into the Ph.D. program. Hers was the inaugural class in the neuroscience program. She graduated in 2009 as the highest-ranking student in her class, receiving the Armand J. Guarino Award for Academic Excellence in Doctoral Studies.

After completing a year as a postdoctoral fellow at UT Health San Antonio, she moved to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, where she worked as a postdoc and later became a research instructor. It was in Music City—appropriately—that her love for the arts professionally collided with her love of science.

She began studying how music affects the brain, and organized Nashville’s first Music and Mind seminar that brought together musicians and scientists on one stage. Her attempts to bring neuroscience into the mainstream didn’t stop there. She organized walks to support the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and spoke to groups throughout the city about the brain. She shared her family’s story about mental illness and her personal quest to uncover the biology behind it.

“When I wasn’t doing experiments in the lab, I was talking to people outside of the lab about the brain. I thought we shouldn’t be afraid to tell our stories anymore,” she said. “The more I went out to the community and started talking, the more they would talk back and they started caring about the brain. And I was shocked at how little people knew.”

Her goal: Erase the stigma of depression and other mood disorders by showing there’s a biological reason for the behavioral symptoms. To do that, she said, requires breaching the walls of academia.

“We have a responsibility to our community to share the information that we know and keep our communities healthy and knowledgeable,” she said.

But so much of science is black and white, with no room for emotion, her critics said.

“I have had scientists tell me that I shouldn’t be doing my science because I have a reason to do it, and I thought that was the weirdest logic I have ever heard,” she said. “They said I shouldn’t be studying mood disorders because of my sister. But what is going to keep me going every day? I need to do it. So I think it’s a good thing to have heart behind your science.”

She took that passion with her to Florida Atlantic University, where she now works as a research assistant professor in biomedical science. She’s studying how changes in the immune system can have a depressive effect on mood. She is also helping create the university’s first Brain Institute, a research facility that will offer master’s and Ph.D. programs in neuroscience. As the director of community engagement and programming for the Brain Institute, she will ensure community outreach also will play an important role.

“Neuroscience is growing by orders of magnitude every day, and I’m excited that hopefully we will totally erase the stigma of mental illness soon,” she said.

The arts and sciences have blended to make Nicole a better scientist, she said. She thinks differently, asks different questions. Her nontraditional path has added new dimensions to her work.

“When my experiments work, I dance in the lab,” she said.

Sometimes she imagines what her life would be like if she had become a dancer instead of a scientist.

“But then when the experiments work, and we find another potential target for treatments for mental illness,” she said, “I am reminded why I chose the science road.”

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