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Faculty Spotlight: Leonard White, PhD

Friday, December 8, 2017

A veteran of Duke for nearly two decades but a relative newcomer to the Department of Neurology, Leonard White, PhD, is the subject of this week’s Faculty Spotlight. In this interview White talks to us about his three-decade love affair with the human brain, the joys and labor involved in teaching one of the world’s most popular online courses, and his weekly “neur-runs,” love of classical guitar and appearing in the School of Medicine’s student-faculty show appearances outside of work.

What are your responsibilities within the Neurology Department? How does this work tie in with your time in Duke Neurobiology, the Institute for Brain Science, and other Duke institutions?
My primary mission is education. I see my main responsibilities within the Neurology Department serving its mission in undergraduate (medical student) medical education, but I also hope to have an impact in graduate (resident/fellow) medical education. Given my role as primary director of the MS1 course, Brain and Behavior, and my broad interests in foundational neuroscience and clinical neuroanatomical education, I hope that I can be useful to all members of the neurology community when and where educational resource and service is needed. This fits well with my role in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences where I bear responsibility for leading the educational mission of the institute, particularly with respect to its signature baccalaureate program, the Neuroscience major within the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. I also co-direct the Brain and Society theme of the university-wide Bass Connections initiative.

My role in medical education has also extended to a unique “special masters” program I helped create for the School of Medicine, called the Duke Master of Biomedical Sciences. This program is already, in just its third year, advancing new paradigms for education in the biomedical sciences and the health humanities while we prepare the next generation for careers in the health professions, industry, and administration.

I remain active in research pursuing collaborations on the evolution and development of the visual cortex, novel means to image and explore the structure of the human brainstem, and neuropathological manifestations of lysosomal storage disorders in animal models, including mucopolysaccharidosis type I.

I should also say that I am quite proud of the newly published 6th edition of our textbook, Neuroscience, by Purves et al. (eds.) and Oxford University Press. This is the most significant update since the first edition of this book came out 20 years ago. Neuroscience is constantly evolving and expanding, so this update was much needed to keep pace with this exciting field.

What was your initial involvement in this textbook? How has your role as editor changed over time?
I have been a contributor to the book since its second edition (2001) and an editor since the fourth edition (2007). Currently, I serve the book as author and editor of the book’s unit on “motor systems”, its appendix on "human neuroanatomy,” and I oversee the coherence of content pertaining to clinical applications. The founding editor-in-chief of the project is Dale Purves, who remains a vital force in the production and success of this collective effort involving multiple contributors and a team of editors.

How and when did you first get interested in neuroscience? What do you enjoy most about the field?
I first met the human brain and the field of neuroscience some 32 years ago and it was love at first sight! And it has remained an abiding passion throughout these years. What I enjoy most is simply the beauty and wonder of the human brain – all of its component systems and circuits and all of the wonderful and still quite mysterious physiological operations that give rise to the depth and breadth of human experience.

Your medical neuroscience course, available online, is one of the most popular massive open online courses in the country. What’s the most difficult part of teaching a course like this? What’s surprised you the most about teaching a course like this?

Yes; since January of 2013, I have been teaching a free, online course called “Medical Neuroscience” which has now been experienced by 200,000+ individuals worldwide. This course was recently named one of the “top 50 free online courses of all time” by Class Central and one of Coursera’s most highly rated courses from among its 2000+ offerings. It has been a labor of love. Nevertheless, the most difficult challenge is devoting the time to engage with curious and highly dedicated learners from all walks of life from all over the world. What has surprised me most about this experience is the passion and creativity of the learners – a lesson I try to bring back to all of my campus-based teaching duties (click here for further reflections).

What’s the most important discovery about the brain that’s happened since you began studying neuroscience? What new changes or discoveries do you see coming in the next decade?
Time will tell the best answers to these questions. In my opinion, the most significant discovery in my 32 years is the capacity for the brain to change itself, not just in early life, but across the lifespan. There are evolutionarily constrained limits on this capacity for change, but I don’t think we have reached those limits yet nor do we fully appreciate how far we can push this amazing neural capacity for change. Along these lines, we will surely discover more effective and efficient means – even more astonishing technology assisted means – for re-shaping the structure and function of circuitry in the human nervous system.

You’re married to the Department of Medicine’s Heidi White, who acts as the geriatric division’s Vice-Chief of Clinical Affairs. Which one of you has the more difficult job?
As an educator, no one’s life is in my hands (although I did have a soldier in the Syrian army take my online course and write to say that the experience “saved his life” by giving him hope for a future in healthcare as a physiotherapist). I so admire the work my wife and so many of our colleagues in Geriatric Medicine and Neurology do to care for our elders and people of all ages. There’s no question that all of them have more weight bearing down on their shoulders than I have on mine. But I do have a sense that we are all in this together! I’m glad to be part of the team!

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
I love to be outside hiking, kayaking or backpacking with my family. I especially enjoy my Saturday morning “Neur-runs” in the Duke Forest with students discussing the mysteries of life and the brain while running a nearly 5-mile circuit in the Korstian Division of the forest. I do my best to pursue studies of the guitar (mainly classical), which I perform from time to time at my church and in the occasional Duke Medicine “Student Faculty Show.”

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White holds a human brain aloft during a Duke School of Medicine Student Faculty Show.
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White poses with his son after a wedding performance.