Q & A with Dr. Sandra Chapman
Monday, October 20, 2014
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I am a Texas girl all the way. Dallas has been my primary home except for a few years living in Palo Alto where I worked as an assistant to the Chair of the aeronautical space engineering department at Stanford – the first academic program degree in space travel.
What event in your life inspired you to work in brain health?
Early on, I wanted to be involved in space travel - specifically to be involved in the Moon Shot. Every country around the world focused major financial resources and their top talent on trying to be the first to get to the moon. As a daughter of a math teacher, a degree in math was a natural for me with a secondary focus on computer science. But before I could even complete my studies – the US made it to the moon. I figured that was already done – I needed to move on.
So, I then became fascinated by the brain – an even more complex challenge. To this day, brain science and the ability to improve its functions remains the most important and unchartered frontier of discovery. I eventually pursued a doctoral degree in communication sciences with a focus on cognitive neuroscience. I still remember Steve, who had suffered a brain aneurysm 2 years before he participated in my doctoral research. After I tested him on complex measures, I told him how bright he was as he could quickly synthesize novel big ideas from lengthy information – no easy mental task. He said “No, I’m not. My doctors told me I could only be a car parker." I told him not to let that stand in his way – what did he want to do? He said he always wanted to go to college. So he did and with our help, he graduated magna cum laude on full scholarship from SMU and went on to complete graduate work and help others with brain injury – not accept a disabled label.
This experience and many other similar ones across the age span in individuals with a broad array of brain issues made me realize how little was known about our brain’s function and its immense ability to adapt and repair. I was challenged by the realization that there wasn’t going to be just one right answer, like in math. Rather, each individual’s brain was a uniquely new and complex challenge and only deep knowledge and hands on experience would make a difference for them. I realized that I was powerfully and passionately drawn to that human element and as well as the limitless need for greater discovery about the human brain and its operating systems.
What event/person prompted you to conceive of the Center for Brain Health?
From the beginning of my research career, I saw, time and time again, patients repeatedly being told by medical professionals that the limitations of their brain capacity, resulting from injury, disease, or socioeconomic status, were irreversible. And yet, I had observed much the opposite – that with effort and training they continued to make gains well beyond what had been predicted.
Early on in my career, I worked with a young man with severe autism. My tape recorder broke during our session and he took the entire thing apart, put it back together again and it worked perfectly. He was able to get a job at a local dry-cleaners at a very young age – because he could expertly operate the equipment better than the adult employees. Why was this person was labeled as incapable of learning? Then, there was a young woman who had been born prematurely and weighed 2.8 pounds at birth. Her family was told that she would never be able to live independently. I encouraged them to keep expecting and stimulating her brain development. She went on to get a graduate degree and is now an executive.
I knew at that point that a new approach to researching the brain was needed. It would require viewing the brain with a new lens - since the ‘facts’ I had learned from books that brain injury was permanent and the time window for repair was limited to one year were clearly wrong. Instead – the brain needed to be studied and appreciated as a complex organ that has more back-up systems than any space shuttle where other brain regions and new connections could work around areas that were injured or compromised to some degree and that improvement could take place for life. I am impatient about new findings taking too long to help people – at best 20 to 30 years. I was determined to create an innovative place where every scientist focused on, and was dedicated to, improving brain health, today. Voila – the vision for the Center for BrainHealth at UTDallas became a reality.
That is such a huge goal! What (or who) gave you the energy and confidence to move forward?
I was greatly encouraged by Dallas community leaders early on like Dave Fox and Norm Brinker to create a big vision for what a brain health focused research center could become. I was able to share with them the variety of successes our scientific team had achieved with diverse individual brain issues. That led to them trusting us to help them develop custom strategies to deal with workday deficits that they were experiencing as a result of brain injury and progressive brain disease. Both of these amazing men challenged me personally to help others, just as I had helped them, by creating a world class scientific center of excellence focused on brain health across the entire life span.
What is the secret to building such an important organization from the ground up?
Passion. Compassion. Not accepting Status quo. Impatience. At the Center for BrainHealth, we have been able to attract a group of highly skilled and focused scientists, highly trained clinicians and talented support staff that passionately embrace our collective goal of achieving meaningful scientific breakthroughs and immediately translating them into practice with people in need - now. In addition, I never accept status quo. The BrainHealth team is tenacious in their efforts to push the limits of current brain science and discover novel ways to enhance cognitive performance for all.
If you could pick one outstanding achievement of the Center for Brain Health, what would it be?
We have become the thought leader in championing the message that brain health is the cause of this century. We believe that it is critical for each individual to take steps to match their cognitive brain span to their body’s every increasing lifespan.
We’re letting the public know they don’t have to be let their brain performance lose ground – that they can change their brain. We’re giving them solutions and strategies that allow them to attain better brain function on all levels. We are also incredibly excited about being on the leading edge of proving that metrics of brain blood flow and advanced reasoning rather than IQ type tests are true biomarkers of brain health.
In your new book, Make Your Brain Smarter, you address the fact that memory is not the most important measure of brain capacity. If not that, what is?
Our educational systems and corporations continuously reinforce the importance of memorization and fact learning yet, when it comes to our brain, it really is a case of quality over quantity. Our brain functions best by using its core intellectual processes: abstract thinking, problem solving, reasoning, planning and judgment. These are higher order thinking skills that keep you independent throughout life such as making sound financial decisions and maintaining your household. We can compensate for memory glitches, but we cannot compensate for sound judgment.
What is your ultimate vision for the future of the Center for Brain Health?
My vision for the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas is that it will be the catalyst in establishing Dallas as the world’s preeminent brain health focused research institute. And to further that goal, the Center for BrainHealth’s 135-strong scientific team, will be augmented by the recently announced Brain Performance Institute, the translational arm of the Center for BrainHealth, where once we have proven scientific trials to enhance brain health, training and treatment programs can be immediately made available to individuals across the life span in health, brain injury and disease. We are currently working with several inspiring populations including warriors, athletes, executives, and public school students. We are proving daily that brain health is necessary and possible for everyone regardless of age, health, status, or lifework.