A Ballad of Brain Cells: Dr. Evelyn Tiffany-Castiglioni

Dr. Evelyn Tiffany-Castiglioni, head of the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS) at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), has loved music from an early age. When she was four years old, her mother taught her piano-later came accordion, harp, cello, and singing. But from a similarly early age of five years old, she also loved biology.

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Tiffany-Castiglioni remembered her father bringing home a frog dissection kit and a see-through Visible Man. “One night he dissected the frog for us,” she recalled, “and I saw how the layout of the organs was very similar to the Visible Man-where the stomach was, where the intestines were, the lungs and the heart-the body plan was similar. I was just five, but I found it fascinating.”

Now a neuroscientist, Tiffany-Castiglioni serves the CVM as a devoted administrator, researcher, mentor, and, occasionally, a musician. She was one of its first female faculty members, and today she is the head of VIBS and the CVM’s first associate dean of undergraduate education.

Quieter Times at the CVM

In 1982, Tiffany-Castiglioni finished her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles, and she and her husband decided to return to their Texas roots. She was attracted to the CVM’s uniquely encouraging, collaborative atmosphere, she said. “I felt the students were there because they loved animals, not to get a prestigious job or money.”

At the time, the Department of Veterinary Anatomy (VTAN), a predecessor of the VIBS department, was looking for a new assistant professor, and Tiffany-Castiglioni applied. She interviewed with Department Head Raymond Sis at the since-closed grill, The Loading Dock, where, she speculates, her toddling 18-month-old daughter helped charm him into offering her the position.

Sis hired Tiffany-Castiglioni to teach and lead research in cell biology and histology. With no “start-up funding,” Tiffany-Castiglioni “scrounged” together a 90-square-foot lab in the parking lot and a surplus lab hood, and set her pen to a pile of applications. Within three years, she had funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Heart Association (AHA), and the Epilepsy Foundation of America to continue her postdoctoral studies on the inner-workings of a type of glial (non-neuronal) brain cell called an astrocyte.

Tiffany-Castiglioni did this only about a decade after the CVM officially allowed unrestricted admission for women into all programs. She was around the 10th woman on the CVM faculty and the third (a high number then) in VTAN. She worried somewhat, she said. The faculty included a couple of young women besides her, “but none of them had a baby during their time getting tenure”-and she worried about how she would be perceived and whether people would trust her to balance family and work. Despite her fears, she said, the CVM was a much friendlier place for women than other colleges.

An Academic and a Musician

When Tiffany-Castiglioni had arrived in 1982, VTAN was a small department with 15 faculty and not much research, although she said she found a rather friendly work group, such as downstairs in the electron microscopy laboratory.

Sis stepped down a year after Tiffany-Castiglioni arrived, and the freshly recruited Gerald Bratton became department head. Like Sis, Bratton strongly promoted research. During his 15 years in the position, he encouraged building the Large Animal Clinic (now Hospital) in 1993 and remodeling the VTAN surgical suite, where Tiffany-Castiglioni received a renovated lab.

Bratton said Tiffany-Castiglioni was “one of my young superstars. We gave her lots of opportunities, and she did us a great job. She listens well, she doesn’t fly off the handle, she analyzes things before she makes decisions, and she gets along with all levels of students, faculty, and staff.”

Tiffany-Castiglioni said she considers Bratton one of her main mentors. The mentorship started with a collaborative research project. A paper proposed a connection between her studies in astrocytes and his in lead. They took the tip and ran, earning funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and the NIH, and publishing many papers together. Their research eventually showed that astrocytes are the brain cells that absorb and store lead.

In 1995, Tiffany-Castiglioni and her lab found a protein in astrocytes that finds lead and is a key to lead neurotoxicity. This finding and its subsequent studies that followed from it, led to the Texas A&M; Association of Former Students (AFS) awarding her the Distinguished Faculty Award for Research in 1998. Tiffany-Castiglioni continues to research the changes in biochemistry and function of astrocytes in response to lead.

Tiffany-Castiglioni received tenure in 1987 and took a faculty development leave in 1989. For her leave, she half-jokingly said that she set for herself three goals: first, to learn new molecular biology techniques at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio; second, to learn to type on a computer; and third, to start playing the harp again.

“I gave up music for 13 years,” she said, recollecting the busy time beginning with her postdoctoral research and continuing into her time at the CVM. In 1989, her children were nine and two-“finally old enough to let me play!”

Music has often blended into Tiffany-Castiglioni’s teaching career. She keeps a lever harp (the lighter, nimbler cousin of a traditional concert harp) in her office and has often brought it to class to serenade her students with lyrics of, for example, thyroid histology and iodide, set to old English folk tunes. When the (thoroughly sanitized) Large Animal Hospital set up a 4-6 day triage hospital for over 350 elderly and child evacuees of Hurricane Rita, she and her harp could be heard soothing the stress of the halls.

Tiffany-Castiglioni said she loves teaching, in song and otherwise, but as much as she loves it, she has since found a pursuit she loved even more.

New Terrain

In 1994, Tiffany-Castiglioni spoke to some students about careers in science, describing the stages of an academic’s life up to being a new full professor, where she was at the time. What would be next? She didn’t know. In fact, she thought of it as a “featureless terrain.” She had hoped it would include research and teaching-but, what else? Two years later, she found out.

The CVM was seeking someone to fill a new position: assistant dean of the Biomedical Sciences (BIMS) undergraduate program. “I loved BIMS,” Tiffany-Castiglioni said. “I taught in it, and I thought it was valuable. So I wanted someone good in charge.”  She remembered how she’d asked others, including Bratton, to apply for the position-and all those turned right around and asked her, “Well, why don’t you apply?” She did, and she joined Dr. Mary Herron, then assistant dean of professional programs, and Dr. Ann Kier, then head of the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB), as the third woman “at the table” of the CVM administration. Tiffany-Castiglioni has remained at the table since, and her title changed from “assistant” to “associate” in 1998.

“I knew she had the demeanor and the background,” Bratton remembered. “I thought she’d make a good associate dean, and I think she has.”

In 1998, Bratton stepped down as head of the merged Department of Veterinary Anatomy and Public Health (VAPH). Tiffany-Castiglioni served a year as interim department head while the new dean, Dr. Richard Adams, rallied an external search. They eventually asked her to apply, she said. So she did, and she received the position.

Tiffany-Castiglioni’s move into administration changed her thinking. “For years, I thought my major identity was a researcher,” she said. “It is what I am; and now, I know that my identity is building a department and helping to build a college. I do it through hiring, strategic use of resources, and mentoring.” Her shift was simple, she said. “I just built on Gerald’s foundation.”

Bratton says she’s done that and more for VAPH and its successor, since its 2005 name change, VIBS. “The quality of research has improved,” he said. She, too, “has grown a lot,” he added, “and has become a good administrator.”

Of her vision for VIBS, Tiffany-Castiglioni said, “The department is working toward parallel excellence in research, teaching, and service.” Outside her office, in the heart of the VIBS office, hang plaques with long lists of department faculty who have won AFS Distinguished Achievement Awards in teaching, research, graduate mentoring, outreach, and administration. Her name appears there twice: once in 1998 for research, and again in 2014 for administration.

Tiffany-Castiglioni’s other awards include the Women’s Faculty Network Outstanding Mentoring Award for 2012 and the Texas A&M; Women’s Progress Award for 2013. She is the associate editor of Neurotoxicology and on the editorial board of International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience. She has served on committees inside and outside Texas A&M;, including, most recently, the Texas A&M; University President’s Council on Climate and Diversity for the 2014–2015 academic year. She has served on 10 grant review committees and study sections, advised dozens of students, and mentored more. She currently heads a search committee for the department head position in VTPB.

Tiffany-Castiglioni serves with a love of teaching and research, a deep appreciation for history and new opportunity, and a passion for cultivating her department and college. She brings these talents (and sometimes a musical instrument) with her to the CVM every day.

“That’s how a college gets better-by building the strengths of the people in it,” Tiffany-Castiglioni said.