Meet the neuroscientist behind the new Cole Field House

The year was 1970 and a 7-year-old Elizabeth “Betsy” Quinlan had asked her mother for a watch on Christmas Eve. With no time to buy her a watch, her parents instead gave her the microscope they had already bought, and although she could never make anything on time, the gift spurred a lifelong love of science.

Now a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Maryland, Quinlan has learned to keep to her schedule. This past May, she was appointed as the scientific co-director for the Center for Sports Medicine, Health and Human Performance as part of the Cole Field House renovation project.

“There’s a very ambitious program going into Cole,” she said. “It’s going to house the athletics department, have practice fields for the football team. Independent of that there’s going to be a whole center for health and human performance that’s going to serve not just the athletes but also the county, the community.”

Quinlan hopes the center has a large impact on the local community. In close proximity to other institutions like the National Institute of Health and Johns Hopkins, she said she wants the center to be another leading medical facility.

“One of the things I would say about Betsy is she’s very open to new ideas,” graduate student Jawshan Ara said. “This is making the impossible possible with new ideas. She’s not afraid of failing. She thinks that if there is possibility it is worth it.”

The center is a collaboration of neuroscience from the University of Maryland, College Park, and neurology from its sister campus in Baltimore. As a neuroscientist, Quinlan will research injuries while her scientific co-director Dr. Alan Faden will work with clinicians to alleviate pain.

“The two campuses have tried very hard historically to differentiate themselves from each other, and now we see more benefit in working together,” Quinlan said. “All science is team science now. Being able to bring the Ph.D.s on this campus together with the M.D.s on that campus is going to be very powerful.”

The center, which was proposed two years ago, is expected to be completed by December 2019, according to The Washington Post.  Right now, Quinlan and her colleagues on the project are still in the process of getting the word out and recruiting scientists to collaborate and develop more ideas for the center. 

“We have money to spend, we want to make sure we’re making strategic investments with this money,” Quinlan said. “But we also want to see how we can leverage what we have with the other resources on campus. There’s a lot of organization and leveraging at this point.”

Through the MPowering the State initiative, the center has received an initial $3 million in funding. The total construction for the entire facility will cost $155 million, according to The Washington Post

“Cole is a real landmark,” Quinlan said. “If the Cole Field House had been bulldozed and we rebuilt on that site it would have cost a lot less money. The campus leadership felt that maintaining that iconic facade of Cole was important to the culture of the campus and the legacy of the campus, so we retained that.”

Research has been a passion of Quinlan’s throughout her career, she said. In her lab on campus, she works as a mentor with graduate students, studying neuroplasticity and how the brain re-maps over time.

“Since I’ve been at the University of Maryland for 15 years, I’ve been trying to understand how aging affects cortical function,” Quinlan said. “There’s just something fundamentally different about the way the adult brain learns versus the juvenile brain.”

One of her main areas of focus is curing amblyopia, where vision is unequal between both eyes because of cataracts or other factors. In 2007, she developed a method to treat amblyopia by depriving her subjects of light and retraining the affected eye. In 2010, her work was recognized with the Advancement of Science Award by the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association.

“She’s a very hands-on mentor,” said graduate student Clare Sengupta, who works with Quinlan studying amblyopia. “It makes me very happy to see that she’s gotten full tenure since I’ve been here and that she’s in charge for the Cold Field House as the scientific co-director. I’m very proud to have her as a mentor.”

During her undergraduate years, Quinlan originally wanted to be a fiction writer, and started taking English classes while working toward a B.A. in psychology. When Quinlan signed up for a class called Neuroscience for Non-Majors, it was a turning point in her life that convinced her to switch to a B.S. in psychology, and continue on to earn her Ph.D. 

“First semester of my junior year I took this class with Jeff Denburg, who’s a friend of mine now, a neuroscientist,” Quinlan said. “Every time I see him I say, ‘You’re the reason I’m a neuroscientist.’ I don’t know if it was the first lecture or the second lecture but I remember thinking, ‘Oh boy. This is it. This is what I want to do.’”

Now Quinlan lives in Annapolis with her partner. In their spare time the two go out to see live music, take tap-dancing classes and partake in cook-offs with their friends, she said. They recently experimented with corn beef in a coconut curry thai sauce, “a real risk,” Quinlan said.

“I think I apply the same kind of approach to aspects of my life that I do in the lab,” Quinlan said. “You have to take some chances, you have to try some things. Not everything’s going to work and if it doesn’t work you just go try something else.”

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