Since the early 1990s, Jeff Twiss has been at the forefront of the molecular neurobiology field. His work has overturned longstanding views in neuroscience; his research has the potential to transform recoveries from debilitating injuries; and his mentorship has led to the development of two centers known nationally and internationally for their work.
This excellence has now led to him being named the 2022 SEC Faculty Achievement Award recipient for the University of South Carolina.
“I’m thrilled and honored that the university would think of me in this way and hold me at the level of receiving this award,” says Twiss. “I feel like it’s a recognition of things we have been trying to do for a long time.”
When Twiss came to South Carolina in 2013 as the SmartState chair in childhood neurotherapeutics, he did so with a blank slate in front of him in terms of molecular neurobiology. At the time, there were relatively few faculty members at the university whose research focused on purely on the molecular side of neuroscience. So, with the support of state funding that accompanied the founding of the SmartState Center for Childhood Neurotherapeutics, Twiss began implementing a vision: to continue down the same path of research that he’d been on since the early 1990s; but to accelerate and make this work more robust by hiring faculty whose expertise extended his own and, thus, build an ecosystem of learning and research among them.
This started with the SmartState center, and the hiring of three new faculty since its founding. But, soon, this vision grew broader. Through casual conversations at conferences with UofSC psychology professor Jane Roberts, an idea was sparked for robust interdisciplinary collaboration. The two worked together to draft a proposal for a new center on campus that would take neuroscience research in a whole new direction.
Roberts explains their vision, saying, “We take a translational bench-to-bedside approach by considering multiple levels of analysis from cellular and neuronal activity to human behavior and community systems. This has been described as a ‘neurons to neighborhoods,’ framework, and we believe that this approach yields far better results than working in isolation.”
After securing funding through the Office of the Provost’s Excellence Initiative, the two began building out the center, now named the Carolina Autism and Neurodevelopment Research Center, in a similar fashion to how Twiss built out his SmartState center — by hiring faculty whose unique research interests advanced the collective research acumen of the larger team. In an even more collaborative fashion, some faculty members hired for the SmartState center also became a part of CAN.
“For both projects, Jeff has been an essential player in the growth of these collaborations among colleagues,” says Joel Samuels, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “And the only way that centers can be successful is to have meaningful collaborations among a group of colleagues. It can’t be done by one individual. And the nature of Jeff’s style is such that, as extraordinary as he is as a researcher — and he is — he is equally strong as a mentor to colleagues and as a collaborator that brings people along.”
Twiss has taken an active role in working with and mentoring the new faculty being hired. He doesn’t remember what it stands for anymore, but years ago, he and his colleagues began “PROF” sessions. A group of faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences get together regularly and one member presents what they plan to do for an upcoming grant. The rest of the colleagues listen and provide feedback, sharing their thoughts: what they like and don’t like, what works, and what could be done better. The goal is to make that grant as competitive as possible so that the faculty’s and UofSC’s research can advance.
It's hands-on mentorship like this that has led to most of the junior faculty hired by the SmartState center receiving NIH grants, and the robust growth both centers have experienced under Twiss’s leadership.
“You can just tell — he loves to mentor other people,” Roberts says. “He is always putting other people in front of him and standing behind, he never wants credit, he never wants to take any resources from others. He wants to build, grow and mentor, and I love that about working with him.”
Despite the responsibility that comes with leading two centers, Twiss continues to advance his own research. What started over 30 years ago as exploratory research into the transcription of DNA into RNA and the ensuing translation of RNA into proteins, now poses the potential to speed-up and dramatically improve peoples’ recoveries from traumatic nerve injuries.
This confluence of excellence — in research, teaching and mentorship — and the impactful results that have accompanied, has led to Twiss’s international reputation as a leader in molecular neurobiology. It has also led to his recognition as an academic leader in the Southeastern Conference, and his naming as South Carolina’s SEC Faculty Achievement Award winner.
“The University of South Carolina and our students have benefited from Dr. Twiss’s success in building research programs and intertwining research, clinical experience and education,” said Interim Provost Stephen Cutler in the SEC’s press release announcing the award. “His ability to bring intellectuals together is instrumental for expanding neuroscience research at both university and state levels, and he is a model for achieving sustained, impactful research excellence while teaching and mentoring students as they identify and pursue their passions.”
For Twiss, the recognition is just another step forward in his 30-plus year research journey. And while there’s still many years left to go, what drives him to excellence each day is quickly moving from a motivation to a defining legacy.
“I hope they will say I made a difference scientifically,” Twiss says. “That the discoveries I made are lasting. And I hope that my students will say I was a good mentor and that I had a positive impact on their careers.”