Syracuse University Magazine


Sandra Hewett

New Horizons in Neuroscience

When you talk to her colleagues, two words come up again and again when describing College of Arts and Sciences neuroscientist Sandra Hewett: energy and enthusiasm. “Your heart rate goes up 25 beats a minute when she enters the room,” biology professor John Russell says. “The energy and enthusiasm is real. And as far as I can tell, now that she’s been my colleague for a year, it never runs down.”

Both Russell and biology department chair Ramesh Raina say that energy and enthusiasm, coupled with an international reputation as a top-flight scientist and successful, well-funded researcher, made Hewett the perfect choice as the department’s inaugural Beverly Petterson Bishop Professor in Neuroscience. After 15 years at the University of Connecticut Health Center, she and her husband, fellow neuroscientist James Hewett, joined the biology department faculty last fall, packing up and moving to Syracuse with their young son, Oliver.

Neuroscience is by nature an interdisciplinary field, drawing on biology, chemistry, psychology, and even mathematics, physics, and computer science. Hewett is charged with pulling together scientists and scholars from across campus and beyond, shepherding a joint neuroscience Ph.D. program with SUNY Upstate Medical University and working with Russell to revamp the undergraduate integrated learning major in neuroscience. “I love my science,” Hewett says, smiling. “I’m happiest when I’m in my lab. But the Bishop Professorship offered me an opportunity to do something new: to build a neuroscience program, build coalitions and work with new people and different resources.”

Meanwhile, in her lab, she will pursue the elusive goal that has kept her working passionately, if not obsessively, for two decades: a neuron-protective treatment for stroke. For generations, scientists thought neurons, the excitable brain cells that enable us to move, speak, and think, were the only cells that really mattered in the brain. In recent years, Hewett and others have shown that astrocytes, the most abundant brain cells once thought to serve as inter-neuronal glue, are critically important to brain function. In addition to providing nutrients and maintaining proper pH, ion, and water balance in the brain, astrocytes remove glutamate, a key neurotransmitter, from the synapses between neurons. But in the setting of stroke, astrocytes are activated to release glutamate that floods the synapses, and neurons literally excite themselves to death. “It’s called excitotoxicity,” says Hewett, who holds a Ph.D. degree in pharmacology from Michigan State University. She has homed in on a protein that transports glutamate; if she can slow down the transport, perhaps with a drug, she believes she can break the destructive cycle that leads to progressively more brain damage. She thinks the same mechanism is at work in traumatic brain injury, ALS, and brain tumor growth; colleagues are working to prove this. “I’m so excited!” Hewett says, and you believe her. “This is all new; new to the world, new to me. —Jim Reilly

Beverly Petterson Bishop Professorship in Neuroscience

Recipient: Sandra Hewett, Department of Biology, College of Arts and Sciences

Background: Charles Bishop ’42, G’44 endowed the professorship in honor of his late wife, Beverly ’44, a nationally recognized neuroscientist and physiology professor who was the author of Basic Neurophysiology (1982) and more than 150 scholarly articles. The endowment supports the activities, research, and teaching of the Bishop Professor to promote the study of neuroscience.