New Award and Fellowship will Honor the Life and Legacy of Esteemed UC Davis Neuroscientist
The Karen Sigvardt, Ph.D. Award and Fellowship will support the Center for Neuroscience’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program
The Center for Neuroscience recently announced two new funds, the Karen Sigvardt, Ph.D. Neuroscience Award and the Karen Sigvardt, Ph.D. Neuroscience Fellowship.
The award and fellowship were established in October 2021 and endowed through a generous gift from Audrey Webb, in loving memory of her late partner Karen Sigvardt, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Neurology in the School of Medicine and a valued core member of the Center for Neuroscience and the greater neuroscience community at UC Davis.
“I wanted to create a meaningful legacy to honor Karen’s life and career,” said Audrey Webb. “Karen was passionate about her work and devoted to her colleagues and students. This award and fellowship will allow her work to continue through research conducted by new generations of scientists.”
The Karen Sigvardt, Ph.D. Award and Fellowship will support neuroscience graduate students through the Center for Neuroscience’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program by providing education, training, and outreach opportunities to increase access, mentorship, and success.
“We are incredibly honored to hold the Karen Sigvardt, Ph.D. Neuroscience Award and Neuroscience Fellowship at the Center for Neuroscience,” said Kimberley McAllister, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroscience and a Professor of Neurology in the UC Davis School of Medicine and of Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences.
“Karen was an inspiration to all of us at the Center and a pioneering role model for women in science at a time when there were few women on our faculty. This award and fellowship will have a significant impact in increasing access and promoting research and training excellence for our graduate students from underrepresented groups in neuroscience,” said Kimberley McAllister, Ph.D.
Moving from the Midwest to the West Coast
Karen earned a B.S. and Ph.D. in Zoology at the University of Iowa, and then joined Dr. Brian Mulloney’s group at UC Davis as a postdoc in the late 1970s, where she did foundational work in experimental electrophysiology and neural pattern generation.
From there, she did further postdoctoral training at Stanford University, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and UCSF before joining the UC Davis Department of Neurology as an Adjunct Assistant Professor.
Karen’s professional career grew and flourished at UC Davis, where she made seminal discoveries in research and played important roles in graduate education and the Graduate Program in Neuroscience. She was a trailblazer in neuroscience and made landmark discoveries exploring the neural basis of locomotion, cognition, and functional brain networks in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
"Karen's foundational work in neural circuitry and wide-ranging curiosity led to a unique career spanning the basic science and clinical settings," said Brian Mulloney, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences at UC Davis.
She served two terms as a program director in neurobiology at the National Science Foundation, where she was influential in strengthening investments in mathematical and computational components of the field. Upon returning to the UC Davis campus, Karen served as chair of the neuroscience doctoral program, the first female to hold the role.
“Karen had a combination of intelligence and social grace that was impressive,” said Mulloney. “She had a wonderful ability to get along well with people and was a natural leader. She was also very good at helping students succeed.”
A talented and generous colleague and mentor
Karen’s lab was housed in the Center for Neuroscience, where her main research focused on circuit coordination in the lamprey spinal cord and was marked by astute combinations of experiment electrophysiology and mathematical analysis. She had a long-term collaboration with experimentalists and mathematicians Drs. Thelma Williams, Nancy Kopell, and Bard Ermentrout on the dynamics of chains of coupled oscillators, using silver lampreys as the experimental model.
In the 1990s, Karen served as major professor to Bill Miller, a neuroscience graduate student in the first cohort of the nascent doctoral program and who today is a Science Advisor at the National Science Foundation.
“I came to the Neuroscience doctoral program from a very different field, space systems engineering; I was attracted to Karen’s lamprey coupled oscillator project, which I saw as “reverse engineering,” but I had only minimal exposure to science,” says Bill Miller, Ph.D. “I owe Karen a debt of gratitude for teaching me the intricacies of the scientific method, the process of discovery, and the importance of combining curiosity with rigor in research. Karen was an amazing and caring person, scientist, and mentor, and became a life-long friend.”
A new scientific focus
In the early 2000s, Karen transitioned her research focus from lamprey oscillators to oscillator function in Parkinson's disease. She was recruited to the medical team led by Dr. Conrad Pappas at Kaiser Northern California to perform microelectrode recordings for brain mapping in patients undergoing neurosurgical procedures for Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.
Her research led to a prolific and successful set of publications and wide collaborations about the temporal oscillations of neurons in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Karen later became the intraoperative neurophysiologist for the Deep Brain Stimulation program at UC Davis Health in the Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery.
“Karen really connected with patients, and she understood the impact of Parkinson’s disease on the human being in the operating room. She was a brilliant neuroscientist who applied her expertise in computational neuroscience to expand our understanding of the neural basis of cognition and movement challenges in patients with Parkinson’s disease,” said Vicki Wheelock, M.D., clinical professor of Neurology at the UC Davis School of Medicine, who collaborated with Karen on the Deep Brain Stimulation program at UC Davis Health.
A talented and generous mentor, Karen contributed to numerous papers exploring cognition and functional brain networks in patients with Parkinson’s disease. “Karen had the biggest heart in the world. She was always looking for ways to help improve patients’ lives and help her fellow scientists and trainees succeed,” said Wheelock.
Rich life, loved by many
Karen and Audrey met in 1982 and built a beautiful life together over the next four decades. They got married in 2016. Audrey says that Karen had the highest integrity of anyone she’s ever known. The couple enjoyed travelling the globe, to Portugal, England, and France, often in conjunction with Karen’s work travel. In addition to being a scientist, Karen had a rich social life and was loved by many friends and colleagues.
Memorial donations can be made to the Karen Sigvardt, Ph.D. funds at UC Davis. Checks should be made payable to UC Davis Foundation, 202 Cousteau Place, Suite 185, Davis, CA 95618, designating the fund, or made online at give.ucdavis.edu/Go/SigvardtAward or give.ucdavis.edu/Go/SigvardtFellowship.
Thank you to Dr. Brian Mulloney Ph.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences, who contributed to this article.