Malinda Fitzgerald (PhD, ’86) Prepped for Success at Health Science Center

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Pictured: Students who traveled to Uganda or Brazil funded by trainee grant from MHIRT.

Malinda Fitzgerald (PhD, ’86), the only NIH-funded researcher at Christian Brothers University, divvies up her time between her research, teaching and mentoring of students in the university’s research programs. She believes that she was well prepared to do all three in her doctoral program at UTHSC.

In 1979, Fitzgerald embarked on the journey that led to her faculty office at CBU. Though small, it operates as the command station from which she directs her NIH-funded international research and the Department of Biology’s undergraduate research program. It also doubles as a mini-gallery, with displays of photographs and art work from her own trips around the world and student mementos of the international research program that she has directed for the past 13 years.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees (invertebrate zoology) at the University of Memphis, Fitzgerald landed a job at UTHSC’s Department of Anatomy in 1978.

“The country was in a recession, so it took a leap of faith for me to give up a full-time job [in the Department of Anatomy] to start a doctoral program in 1980” she said. Although accepted elsewhere, Fitzgerald chose to enter the UT doctoral program in Anatomy (later Anatomy and Neurobiology). She received a graduate assistantship and, more importantly, was able to keep working with Jim Reger, PhD, a man who helped shape her research career.

Fitzgerald also benefited from her association with some of the best teachers at the Health Science Center. “I’m grateful that I got to work with anatomists trained in the old school,” said Fitzgerald, who learned her teaching philosophy and the nuts and bolts of being an instructor from faculty like Drs. Alex Fedinec, Jack Wilson, and Ranney Mize.

The Health Science Center that she attended was far different from the institution of today. What hasn’t changed is the graduate student experience. Fitzgerald recalls studying until midnight in the GEB and joining other students at a downtown bar for a midnight happy hour.

She also remembers pulling all-nighters when working in Dr. Art Mathney’s laboratory in Nash. “Trucks rolling down Union would sometimes shake the building so hard I had to stop my experiment until they passed less frequently. I did not have an isolation table for my electrophysiology station, and the vibration would ruin my recordings,” she said.

Fitzgerald paused to recall an “aha moment” in the lab one night. “I was pretty sure that I’d found something I needed for my thesis research. I was so excited that I ran up and down the hall looking for someone to share it with,” she said.

To this day, Fitzgerald smiles when she talks about the close-knit student groups, especially the camaraderie of a group of older students in the medical student class of 1984. She attends alumni reunions and still keeps in touch with other graduates, including one person who became her “BFF,” Dr. Beverly Morrison.

Despite a full academic load, research and teaching, Fitzgerald never lost sight of the larger context of her graduate work. She carved out time for organizations such as the Imhotep Society, a student honor society named for the Egyptian god of medicine. She also served as student advisor to the president of the UT system, president of the Graduate Student Association, and as a member of the Student Government Executive Council.

Fitzgerald encourages her CBU students to take the same wider view of their world and to give back through service projects such as collecting books for local schools and nonprofits. CBU students also raise funds for organizations such as Ronald McDonald House and Heifer International. Thanks to service projects like these, CBU’s Alpha Chi honor society received a Star Chapter Award. Fitzgerald, the chapter’s advisor, received the Region III sponsor service award for 2013 and will assume the presidency of Region III in 2014.

She also tries to put students on the path to their senior research project as soon as possible, sometimes as early as their freshmen year. The goal is to teach students about the type of hypothesis-driven research that she conducted in her graduate program. “In their capstone course, students spend three semesters collecting data, writing a research article and then presenting both an oral and poster of their work,” she said.

Before she went to CBU, Fitzgerald completed two neuroscience fellowships at UTHSC. During this time, she obtained an R01 research grant from the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health. She also began a life-long collaboration with Dr. Anton Reiner of over 25 years. They have collaborated on numerous research studies and published their results in approximately 30 biomedical research articles.

Today, Fitzgerald maintains close ties with UTHSC through work with Reiner and as an adjunct professor. She is currently collaborating with Reiner on an NIH National Eye Institute research grant, investigating the neural control of choroidal blood flow. She is also active in the Ophthalmology Department and has participated in the core grant the department had.

by Margaret Carbaugh, UTFI Senior Writer and Producer