From MN LEND to the National Institute of Mental Health

Institute on Community Integration (MN UCEDD/LEND)

January 19, 2021

A fascination with the brain and how it influences behavior began with a high school psychology class for Sunday Francis (MN-LEND 2014-16). It has brought her through the fields of neuroscience, engineering, genetics, and autism research at several prestigious universities.

This month, Francis' path took her from the University of Minnesota's Department of Psychiatry to the National Institute of Mental Health, where she is a research fellow exploring translational approaches across multiple developmental disorders.

"My LEND experience was actually part of the reason I was offered this position," Francis said. ICI Director Amy Hewitt invited the former LEND fellow to speak at the AUCD Conference in 2019. While in Washington, D.C., for the conference, Francis networked informally with a NIMH researcher, and that connection played a role in her recent hiring, Francis said. "I always say, you never know where an opportunity is going to come from."

While at the U, Francis worked as a postdoctoral research associate in clinical autism research under the Converging Approaches to Neurodevelopment (CAN) Lab.

"Dr. Suma Jacob introduced me to the world of autism and to working with children, and I fell in love with the kids," she said. "For me, the brain has always been the ultimate cool place. I'm fascinated by behavior and how the body reacts to its environment."

Beyond the networking experience, Francis credits LEND with opening her eyes to the ultimate purpose behind her research experience, which has included neuromodulation and other clinical work.

"LEND gave me the human side of my research," she said. "I'm still a scientist, but it made me sit back and understand that research is a circle. We need to respect the questions that our communities need to have answered."

Conducting research that benefits communities directly is what keeps her at the bench.

"I'm not sure about my long-term career plans, but for now I still love doing the hands-on research and working with different teams," she said. "I realize that as you move up, you often move further from bench research and don't get to work with as many participants. I'm putting that day off. At NIMH, even as you become a principal investigator, they say you still get to stay in the science. I think that's important."