Brains in the Family


Inspired by their daughter, a couple gives to support the minds behind Neuroscience

By Michelle Hiskey

No parent wants the phone to ring late at night. When Georganne Honeycutt (M.B.A.’80) went to bed that evening in 2008, she knew her adult daughter, Claire, had left for a conference for doctoral students, feeling like her research was a miserable failure. Claire would only call this late for something urgent, Georganne knew when the phone buzzed.

For years, Georganne had watched Claire struggle for a Ph.D. in neuroscience, probing the mysteries of the brain to help patients who had suffered a stroke and help caregivers know how best to aid their rehabilitation. Long hours of isolated lab work often produced little or nothing about how the brain helps the body maintain balance. Setbacks forced Claire to steady the emotions in her own brain.

Georganne had struggled also  how much could or should she do to help her daughter reach the pinnacle of higher education? The answer was easy for her husband and Claire’s father, Ken Honeycutt, (M.B.A. ’80) a self-made international technology executive. As the first in his family to graduate from college, Ken welcomed struggle as his necessary partner on the way to confidenceand success. Didn’t he and Georganne grind out four years for their M.B.A.’s at Georgia State, while getting married, renovating an old Victorian in Inman Park and working full time?

On that late night in 2008, Claire called from the International Society for Posture and Gait Conference. Her years of research boiled down to a large poster, competing against the work of hundreds of other graduate students.

“I won!” Claire said excitedly. “Best research by a student poster presenter!” Her voice carried renewed enthusiasm and dedication for the work needed for her Ph.D.

Today, as the Honeycutts tell why they established a fellowship for the GSU Neuroscience Institute, they touch upon their daughter’s six years of frustration, the support from her academic family, and the way the brain craves rewards connected to people.

Luis Martinez is researching how smells trigger behavior

Luis Martinez is researching how smells trigger behavior

Like a brain, the young neuroscience family is full of surprising interconnections. Like the Honeycutts, it is a family striving amid challenges to raise its next generation.

Parallel families

In the mid-1970s, before Claire and her brother, Graham, were born, their parents banked on education for greater personal and professional reward. Ken, a graduate in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University, worked at Lithonia Lighting. Georganne, a music graduate from Indiana University, worked with the Southern Arts Federation.

“Ken needed an M.B.A. to progress, and having a strong management basis is crucial to any arts project,” Georganne said. “Neither of us had the financial means to stop working. To get an M.B.A., Georgia State was what was possible.”

Night classes shaped every day for four years. “I remember thinking, ‘Will I ever finish this?’” she said. “We met a lot of people doing the same thing, and we all just did it. We never saw the world the same after Georgia State.”

The Honeycutts never saw each other the same, either. “Long hours and considerable sacrifice of so-called free time gave us both a great sense of accomplishment,” Ken said. “That cemented the belief that we could do most anything – if we did it together.”

As parents, the Honeycutts marveled at how their children’s young brains could be wired so differently. Graham, their youngest, became fluent in Spanish and proficient in Mandarin. Claire, at age 7, went with her scout troop to a science museum that offered the chance to dissect a cow’s eyeball. She was the only Brownie to not run away.

“It’s nature,” she told her mom, and the Honeycutts began to see their daughter was heading into science, which neither of them knew much about.

A couple of miles away, Georgia State was also heading in a new direction. It was designated research university in 1996, when Claire was 15, and began targeting fields with the greatest potential for collaboration and new discoveries. Nearby, Georgia Tech and Emory had combined for a biomedical engineering graduate program, and Claire enrolled. When GSU’s new collaborative research umbrella, Brains and Behavior, led to the creation of its Neuroscience Institute in 2008, Claire was mired in her doctoral research and fashioning her poster for the conference.

Research connections

Neuroscience took root around the same time Claire’s parents were getting their M.B.A.s. Like the invitation to scientists and engineers to launch space exploration, neuroscience offered an open arena for addressing the persistent enigmas in the space between our ears. Parkinson’s disease, for example, was considered a disease of the nervous system for more than a century until neuroscientists linked it to genetics.

“We were a bunch of missionaries setting out to solve a big problem,” said Walt Wilczynski, the director of GSU’s Neuroscience Institute, who 34 years ago graduated with the nation’s first Ph.D. in the field. Attracting and connecting researchers across chemistry, molecular biology, anatomy, physics, math, computer information systems and philosophy, neuroscience quickly grew. “We were all focused around how the brain worked,” he said, “but what we were really asking was how people work.”

To visualize links between research, neuro-scientists kept academic “family trees” that traced the work of graduate students back to the field’s pioneers. Even before Neurotree.org, the website that connects researchers in the field, Claire Honeycutt could say with confidence, “My great-great-great scientific grandfather was Charles Sherrington who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1932. He discovered many of the basic principles of neuroscience that we are still trying to understand today. He trained future professors who then went on to train us.”

The academic tree connects research eked out in isolated silos. At GSU’s Parker H. Petit Science Center, neuroscience graduate students often work in windowless, closet-like rooms. Darkness helps them determine the significance – if any – of fluorescent computerized images of brain tissue.

“So many things can go wrong with reagents, equipment, software, and more,” said GSU neuroscience professor Sarah Pallas, to whom Ph.D. students are “the engine of the scientific enterprise.”

“It takes a special sort of person to keep slogging through the tough days or months, or even years, when nothing goes right.”

Ironically, some of this lonely research in neuroscience reveals how the brain makes social bonds, particularly among families. Birds, for instance, aren’t born knowing how to sing neuroscientists discovered that they learn how from their parents. Our brains are wired to crave the approval ofothers, and too much solitude causes suffering. “For the brain, the effect of social rewards can match or exceed a drug high,” said Wilczynski. “Isolation will worsen and prolong the symptoms of many psychological and neurological diseases.”

As Claire Honeycutt channeled her brainpower into stroke research, and her counterparts at GSU sought answers to other cerebral mysteries, their mental stress was tested. Doctoral students generally earn an annual stipend less than $25,000, with the expectation they will not work elsewhere. “Generally, that’s their only means of support not their parents,” Wilczynski said.

Supporting other Claires

Amy Ross studies the connection between diet and Alzheimer's.

Amy Ross studies the connection between diet and Alzheimer’s.

Claire Honeycutt moved on to a post-doctorate fellowship in Chicago, where she met Venn Ravichandran, a fellow lab partner who is now her fiance.

About this time, the significance of their daughter’s chosen profession really hit home for the Honeycutts when Ken’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “One of the heartbreaking things in our family,” Georganne Honeycutt said. “That wasn’t in our history before, so for me, neuroscience research is very meaningful.”

She and Ken – who retired in 2006 as CEO and president of Acuity Brands Lighting, and who now works for Toshiba – began to discuss how they could possibly make a difference for future doctoral students. They asked themselves, what if, on the same verge of success as Claire, these up and coming researchers quit instead? Even a small gesture might help someone finish research that could improve or even save lives.

“Winning the best poster contest changed my whole trajectory,” Claire Honeycutt recalled. “It helped me tell myself, ‘I am good enough.’”

Ken Honeycutt wanted to honor perseverance, not reward someone who was stuck. “I have some sympathy for struggle, but it’s a powerful experience for going forward,” he said. “I always told my children it wasn’t the easy things that build character.”

The Honeycutts decided to make a difference by giving to the Neuroscience Institute at the Petit Science Center, a few blocks from where their business success had been launched through the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. In June, their six-figure donation endowed the Kenneth W. and Georganne F. Honeycutt Fellowship. Their daughter approved: “Much like students, young programs need the same support and recognition for what they are trying to achieve.”

Incentives bridge the isolation

Over the next decade, as many as seven Honeycutt Fellows will receive renewable $2,000 annual cash gifts that can be spent as they wish. The first three recipients say the money is important, the message invaluable.

“Rare positive feedback,” said Tim Balmer, who is researching how neurons become connected. “So much of what we do is criticized by everyone we work with. The fellowship says that what I am doing is very valid, and I’m not wasting my time.”

“It’s hard for my family to get it,” said Amy Ross, who is studying how diet may be connected to Alzheimer’s. She says they have listened to her “stressful rants” and told her that she doesn’t need to finish, but she expects to graduate this spring.

The grant allows Luis Martinez to skip the teaching assistantship and possibly graduate earlier. Nothing can make up for the family sacrifice required by his research into how smells and other perceptions trigger behavior. “The last time I went home to my parents, in October 2010, I worked on a research paper the whole time,” he said. “They were just happy I came home at all.”

Last fall, the Honeycutts hosted the trio of initial fellows for a special dinner to express their support in person. Claire Honeycutt attended, and the neuroscientists compared scientific family trees.

Before the conversation could detour into further neuroscience pathways, Ken and Georganne Honeycutt announced that the fellowship was not a gift. They were both, after all, GSU M.B.A.s. “It’s an investment,” Georganne said. The Honeycutts have already seen dividends in these grad students’ more relaxed and confident minds, and hope for an even greater payback for science in their research and careers.

Up for the challenge

Like 40 percent of students at GSU, President Mark P. Becker was the first in his family to go to college. As he went on to pursue a Ph.D. in statistics, he had to teach his family about the world of academia – and learn about himself apart from them.

My father, Alvin Becker, was career Army, a warrant officer who worked in ordnance and vehicle maintenance, and my mother, Mildred Becker, was an administrative assistant. I wanted to go into the Army, but my mother made me go to college. I was supposed to be an engineer.

We lived in Havre de Grace, a shipping town at the top of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay – my grandmother’s 14 grandchildren lived within four miles of her. I went to Harford Community College. Then I transferred to Towson State, and I got into math and physics.

When I got my B.S. in mathematics in 1980, I had two very good mentors who encouraged me to go to grad school. I really enjoyed learning, the excitement of new ideas and the deeper intellectual questions. I could see a career of research and the excitement around discovery and being about to share it that was a track that I wanted to keep going on.

However, I also had a government job offer working in a computer science lab. The $30,000 matched the highest salary that my father ever made. It represented certainty and financial security.

When I turned down that offer to go to grad school and live on about $6,000 with no definite outcome, my parents were mad. They didn’t yell at me, but it was clear the way the questions were asked. “What are you going to do?” they wanted to know.

“I want to keep learning. I might become a professor,” I told them.

From their perspective, my decision was a big risk. They had lived through the Depression. A government job was a job for life, and no one would walk away from that. The reason I was staying in academia was to do something I loved doing. So when I made that choice, my parents had to come around.

During grad school, their nervousness began to settle down. I also wasn’t as isolated as other Ph.D. students because by then I had married Laura, and her support and partnership gave me a friend who could share all the joys and frustrations of research.

As I made progress, there was a tremendous sense of pride. My father died in 1983 of leukemia, so he did not get to see my Ph.D. commencement. My mother got all the extended family together and had a big party. Before passing away last summer, she also got to see my investiture at Georgia State in 2009. She got to watch the entire ride – that I took a risk, and did OK.

While at one college, I told my story to first-generation students considered to have the potential for Ph.D. programs. One of the deans had assumed I had gone to a college like Stanford. That’s why I love being at Georgia State, because students today are taking risks that were considered so unusual by my parents’ generation. I see in today’s generation an appetite for taking those challenges.

My story is about following your dreams and having your family care enough – even if they are a little bit nervous about what you are doing. If you really are willing to take that risk and work hard, they will eventually take part in your dream too.

As told to Michelle Hiskey