Sonya Wakil ’79 and Bethann Horey ’84: Championing neuroscience discovery and innovation

November 29, 2023

WIN members Sonya Wakil ’79, Bethann Horey ’84 didn’t know each other before joining the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) advisory board. Yet the work being conducted there resonated immediately with Bethann, who has expertise working with children with autism, and Sonya, a double board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. And it brought them together with other Duke alumni, faculty, and students who are at the forefront of new understandings and solutions to issues that affect everyone: a growing youth mental health crisis, conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons, addiction, the link between stress and physical health, how the brain recovers from strokes, and the expanding use of technology to understand everything related to the brain and neuroscience. 

“I started my practice when Prozac first came out, and since then there has been an explosion of knowledge about the mind-brain-body connection,” says Sonya. “We now have a better understanding about how childhood stressors play out, and the impact of socioeconomic factors on mental, physical, and emotional well-being. We now know about the vagus nerve and its key role in the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s exciting to learn how DIBS is exploring these questions and giving me new ways to think outside the box.”

Bethann echoes Sonya’s appreciation for how far the field of neuroscience has come since she was in graduate school. “I remember one of my classes years ago exploring this connection between the mind and the body, and the many manifestations of how what happens in the brain affects our bodies and what we do with our bodies changes our brain. We have come so far in our understanding of this connection, but there’s still so much we don’t know—the full impact of smart phones and technology on the developing brain, for example.”

DIBS was launched at Duke in 2007 as a think tank to promote cross-school collaboration and innovative brain science research to develop insights and treatments in service to a healthier society.  Over 200 DIBS faculty members come from both the university and medical side, and range from biology, psychiatry, and neurology to electrical and computer engineering, evolutionary anthropology, and philosophy. It’s a prime example of Duke’s collaborative, multifaceted approach to teaching, learning, and translational research.

As DIBS board members, WIN members Bethann, Sonya, and Caroline Martinez ’96 support and advocate for the Institute’s mission, which includes training the next generation of problem solvers. “People think that Duke is flush with money and that’s just not the case,” says Bethann. “Research and education need continuous funding. Right now we are trying to raise money for an imaging center separate from the Health System. Currently the MRI facilities are next to the emergency room which makes research with certain groups (like autistic children) very difficult. Additionally, a stand-alone facility would allow us to engage undergraduates with valuable MRI research which now cannot occur in the hospital setting. It would also help recruit and retain leading faculty and graduate students to keep us competitive with peer institutions.”

There’s also a push to obtain sustained funding for DUNE (Duke University Neuroscience Experience), a   summer mentorship program that provides local high school students with hands-on experience in the lab, as well as professional development and networking opportunities. Designed by neuroscience graduate students and postdoc researchers to increase participation from groups underrepresented in the STEM fields, DUNE received generous funding from Bethann and Sonya’s fellow DIBS board member George Lamb III ’75, and the popularity and success of the program have created a demand for it to continue.

Similarly, funding the Institute’s three signature programs for Duke students at different stages of academic exploration will continue to be a high priority. At the undergraduate level, the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Internship (CNRI) is a fully paid semester-long research internship for students with little or no prior research experience who want to learn how to conduct research on human behavior and cognition. And the Summer Neuroscience Program (SNP) is an eight-week summer program for rising juniors and senior neuroscience majors that was launched by DIBS to help accelerate their senior thesis through working with their mentors and advisors.

At the graduate level, DIBS’ Cognitive Neuroscience Admitting Program (CNAP) fast-tracks Ph.D. students interested in multi- and cross-disciplinary approaches to a wide array of fields related to and informed by the cognitive neurosciences. Faculty from across the schools of Arts & Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have committed to serving as thesis advisers, and students select two advisers whose expertise aligns with the students’ interests.

“Neuroscience can sound intimidating, so we want to lower those barriers and spark interest in young people from all backgrounds, because they’re the future,” says Sonya. And as the ripple effects of DIBS’ work is still unfolding and evolving, she says the need for thoughtful collaborators in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and medicine are essential to continued innovation and understanding. “DIBS gave me a place to think about neurology and science in new ways, such as why mental health issues are so high among the prison population, how music can be therapeutic for Alzheimer’s patients, and the neuroscience behind behavioral economics.”

And even though DIBS advisory board meetings provide both inspiring updates and sobering realities, Bethann and Sonya are quick to note that serving on a volunteer board at Duke brings alumni back to school to witness the astounding things taking place every day, in labs and classrooms across campus. “The experience really taps into that inquisitiveness that Duke grads have for learning and lets us see how Duke is shaping the world in ways we could only imagine when we were students,” says Bethann. “Plus, it’s also refreshing to be around other enthusiastic, vibrant people. Sonya and I go for long walks when we’re in town for meetings and come up with all kinds of ideas for what might be possible and ways to bring greater visibility and resources to DIBS. We always come away energized. It’s important work, but it’s also a lot of fun.”