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De Blas balances research,
administration as department head
February 23, 1998

Many researchers would prefer to spend their time on anything besides administrative duties and paperwork. Yet when Angel de Blas, a respected neurobiological researcher, came to the University, he brought more administrative responsibilities - and the paperwork that ensues - into his life.

De Blas is the new head of the department of physiology and neurobiology, and though he admits that accepting the position has reduced the amount of time he can spend on his own research, he is excited about the opportunities his new position holds.

"I think this is a wonderful challenge, one I have been looking forward to," de Blas says. "I believe the experience I have acquired during my research and teaching career can be useful as I try to work with my colleagues to take a very good department and make it outstanding."

"I do not think that is too ambitious a goal," he adds.

De Blas came to the University last semester from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, where he was a professor in the department of molecular biology and biochemistry. He earned his Ph.D. at Indiana University and did his undergraduate work at the University of Madrid. He was also raised in Madrid and speaks warmly of growing up surrounded by the city's historic culture.

"We lived just a few blocks away from the Prado," he says. "Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are spending time looking at the great paintings on display there."

Though art was one of his first loves and remains a strong interest, it was ultimately science that captured de Blas' heart. He became fascinated in particular with molecular structures in the brain known as GABA receptors. These receptors are responsible for accepting chemical messages that produce inhibitory responses in the brain. Their performance is enhanced by certain drugs such as Valium, barbiturates, some anaesthetics and some depressants. De Blas has investigated how these structures work and where in they are localized in the brain. He has also examined how they change during aging and how their dysfunction or damage can produce such aberrant events as epileptic seizures.

De Blas continues to examine these structures, but a desire to push himself in other areas led him to his new position here.

"It was the kind of position I was looking for, a chance to pursue a new and different kind of challenge, and I think the University of Connecticut is the right place for what I want to do," de Blas says. "While other universities are contracting, this University is expanding. There is a commitment from the top on down to change and improvement. I was very impressed by this when I came here to interview, and it's exciting to be part of now that I'm here."

De Blas was also impressed with the faculty of the department of physiology and neurobiology. He knew faculty in the department had national and, in many cases, international recognition for their research. But he also discovered a refreshing attitude toward teaching.

"The faculty here are very involved with undergraduate teaching," he said. "Not just in the classroom. They also open their research laboratories to undergraduate giving them one-to-one attention and opportunity to participate in the creation of scientific knowledge. That is something that is less common at other universities, and something that personally I believe in."

De Blas also calls the faculty in his new department a great team. Together they have begun re-evaluating and redesigning the department's graduate and undergraduate curricula. New curricula will be implemented in fall 1998 and 1999, respectively. De Blas is excited about the process.

"We wanted to make both programs more responsive to our students' needs so they can be more competitive when they go out to continue their scholarship or look for jobs," he says. "This has required a lot of work from the faculty, and ultimately will mean heavier class loads. But they have been really leading the effort. It is something they want to do."

De Blas hopes to augment the new curriculum with increased partnerships between business and the department that will draw on faculty research and student involvement.

"How things are done in industry is quite different than in the academic world," he says. "These arrangements will also help our students find good jobs in the companies where they do internships."

The department can look forward to some help in implementing the new plans. De Blas is authorized to hire two new faculty members this year and hopes to hire two more the following year. The new hires will replace losses the department has suffered to retirements over the past few years.

"Our objective is to take a very good department at a public university and increase its stature to be one of the best of its kind," he says. "The University administration and Dean MacKinnon have been extremely supportive, both in departmental matters and in setting up the labs for the new faculty."

The issue of labs is close to de Blas' heart. Despite his new administrative responsibilities, he still sees himself as very much a scientist.

"Of course, my research is very important to me," he says. "I will just have a little more to think about besides what is going on in my lab and the classroom.

David Pesci