Spark Study Ignites Autism Research at UMMC

Project works to build a genetic database to help researchers unlock disorder's secrets

The UMMC SPARK team includes, from left, research coordinator Kristen Callahan, Dr. Robert Annett, research coordinator Sabrina White and assistant professor of pediatrics Dr. Dustin Sarver. UMMC photo

The UMMC SPARK team includes, from left, research coordinator Kristen Callahan, Dr. Robert Annett, research coordinator Sabrina White and assistant professor of pediatrics Dr. Dustin Sarver. UMMC photo

JACKSON, Miss. – When Laura Beth Johnston’s son Fraiser was diagnosed with autism in December 2014, she said it was a “daunting diagnosis.”

“There is no ‘how-to manual’ for raising a child with autism,” Johnston said.

But with the support of therapists and specialists, Fraiser, 5, started kindergarten this year. Johnston said she and her family also found support through a group for families affected by autism spectrum disorders, or ASD.

“We met parents with the same fears and concerns,” Johnston said.

During one of those meetings, Johnston learned about a study at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Center for Advancement of Youth clinic, or CAY,  that may shine light on ASD.

Dr. Robert Annett, professor of pediatrics, is leading the UMMC study site for the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge, or SPARK, national genetic study of ASD.

“SPARK’s goal is to build a registry of genetic information from individuals with autism and their families,” Annett said. “The results will be important for identifying the causes of autism and informing treatment-related studies in the future.”

UMMC is among 21 institutions that will recruit a combined 50,000 participants and families. This will be the largest ASD study ever undertaken and is sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of 68 children has ASD. However, Mississippi does not have a reliable estimate, said Annett, a pediatric neuropsychology specialist with experience with longitudinal cohort studies.

“There is a huge need in Mississippi to build an ASD cohort,” Annett said, to better understand and strengthen educational and health care resources for individuals with ASD. SPARK may help make that happen.

SPARK is a genome-wide association study, or GWAS, that collects whole DNA sequences from people who share a common trait, such as ASD. Researchers look for genetic markers, or gene variations that may contribute to ASD.

There are about 20 genetic marker “hotspots” connected to ASD, Annett said, but hundreds more could also be important. However, scientists do not understand how the different markers influence a person’s ASD symptoms, behaviors and traits.

“In people with autism spectrum disorders, there are differences in the rate and acquisition of learning, namely with social communication skills,” said Dr. Dustin Sarver, assistant professor of pediatrics and SPARK co-investigator. He studies learning and cognition in youth with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which he says often co-occur with ASD.

The wide range of ASD characteristics and differences make it challenging to study potential causes or treatments, Annett said. By recruiting a large cohort, researchers can divide subjects into smaller, more similar groups to study.

Siblings Fraiser, left, Evie Jane and Carter Johnston swing as parents Brian and Laura Beth Johnston look on. UMMC photo

Siblings Fraiser, left, Evie Jane and Carter Johnston swing as parents Brian and Laura Beth Johnston look on. UMMC photo

Participating families pick up a DNA collection kit from the CAY clinic or receive it in the mail. Each family member spits or swabs their saliva into a tube and mails the sample to a laboratory where scientists test the extracted DNA for the genetic markers, a process called genotyping. They also answer medical history questions online. Families can receive their results after testing.

By collecting DNA from parents and siblings of children with ASD, researchers can study if and how children may inherit ASD.

“This project is about families, not just ASD individuals,” Annett said. “It is important for these families to have a seat at the table so that an individual’s needs can be expressed.”

The SPARK registry will also become a resource for scientists conducting future studies on ASD. By participating, families may be recruited for related clinical trials or registries.

“The intent is to have a better understanding of the subtypes of autism,” Annett said. “With this genetic information, we may be able to predict how these subtypes respond to different therapies or medications.”

The Medical Center’s CAY goal is to recruit 1,500 families during the next three years. To reach that goal, they are collaborating with teams at Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi to conduct statewide outreach.

“Overall, families are very interested in the study,” said Sabrina White, a CAY research coordinator. She and Kristen Callahan, another research coordinator, work directly with families to answer their questions and prepare them to participate. They have been traveling to communities and summer camps across Mississippi to build relationships and recruit families for the study.

Johnston said she and her family decided to participate in SPARK because the study could help answer ASD’s many unknowns. It could help answer her older son’s questions as well.

“Carter (Johnston’s oldest son) will sometimes ask me why Fraiser has autism,” Johnston said. “Or Carter will ask why he and his younger sister don’t have autism.

“We hope that someday other families with children with ASD won’t face the challenges that we face,” she said.

Annett said that any new ASD therapies or treatments based on SPARK could be 10 to 15 years away. However, the research is an important step in that direction.

“Our ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life for people with ASD,” Annett said.

Communiversity Offers Range of Professional Development Courses

Fall classes include info on getting promoted, time management and social media for small businesses

Vanessa Cook (standing), a Communiversity program instructor and UM Division of Outreach assistant director of marketing, will lead a course on "Social Media Marketing" on Sept. 29 and Oct. 6 and 13 as part of the fall Professional Development series of courses. The class will help participants learn to generate leads via Facebook ads, increase traffic to their sites and enhance return on investment for this powerful and cost-efficient marketing tool.

Vanessa Cook (standing), a Communiversity program instructor and UM Division of Outreach assistant director of marketing, will lead a course on “Social Media Marketing” as part of the fall Professional Development series of courses. The class will help participants learn to generate leads via Facebook ads, increase traffic to their sites and enhance return on investment for this powerful and cost-efficient marketing tool.

The University of Mississippi’s Communiversity program is offering a new series of classes this fall for anyone looking to advance in his or her career and polish professional skills.

“This professional development series of classes will help people in our community make strides in their management, technical and communication skills,” said Sandra Sulton, Communiversity coordinator.

First up in this series is Brave Communication owner Julia Winston’s “Time Management for Real Life” offered from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday (Aug. 29) at Insight Park on the UM campus.

The course guides participants into finding the right time and energy management practices that can fit their busy lives. Topics will include setting priorities, organizing your day and delegating tasks.

“Your confidence will skyrocket as you achieve the results you really want to see because not only do I focus on your outcomes, but I also focus on you as a whole person,” Winston said.

Winston’s slate of classes continues Sept. 12, when she offers the popular course “How to Have Difficult Conversations at Work.” Attendees will learn a proven way to take the fear out of difficult conversations at work, how to deal with defensive responses, and how to do it in a way that builds trust.

The course meets 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Insight Park. The fee is $59.

The third component of Winston’s series, “How to Get Promoted: Quicker, Faster, Sooner,” will take place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Sept. 26, also at Insight Park.

Participants will discover how to use seven steps to career advancement that are easily overlooked, as well as what strategies and mindset are needed to land a promotion. The course fee is $59.

Julia Winston

Julia Winston

Designed for the computer novice, “Computer Basics” is a three-night class developed to provide a crash course in Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint for people who want to understand these useful programs for their businesses.

The class is set for 5:30-7:30 p.m. Sept. 13, 15 and 20 in Weir Hall, Room 107. The cost is $85.

Ole Miss instructors JoAnn and Dex Edwards have a combined 30 years of experience in public speaking and teaching the art of speech and debate. They will share their expertise in “Public Speaking: Stand and Deliver,” slated for 5:30-7:30 p.m. Oct. 12, 19 and 26 in Lamar Hall Room 133.

The class fee is $59.

Small business owners, local organizations and corporate representatives alike are can benefit from “Social Media Marketing,” taking place Sept. 29 and Oct. 6 and 13.

“Social media is an accessible marketing option for so many entities, but also confusing,” said Vanessa Cook, assistant director of marketing for the UM Division of Outreach and Continuing Education.

“This class will help you execute a social media marketing plan by discussing recent research, application, trial and error, and professional benchmarks so that small business people and creative entrepreneurs can better use this medium to support their business goals.

“Previous classes have been very interactive. Participants have implemented much of what they learned in the class. I try to adapt sessions two and three to the needs of individual participants so that they get answers for their particular needs.”

Participants will walk away from this boot camp knowing how to set up and optimize social media sites, generate targeted leads via Facebook ads, generate traffic, increase returns on site investment, apply practical strategies, and navigate the do’s and don’ts of social media.

The cost for this course is $69.

Another element of social media advertising is creating images and videos to draw your audience and increase engagement. “Social Media for Non-Designers,” also taught by Cook, will focus on design trends and low-cost options for creating the best presentation.

This course costs $54 and will meet 6-7 p.m. Nov. 7, 14 and 21 in Weir Hall.

To register, or for more information on these and other courses offered through the Communiversity program, visit

Neilson’s Department Store Donates Historic Records to UM Library

Ledgers, correspondence and account data offer insights into Oxford community over the years

The Department of Archives and Special Collections is now home to a collection of accounting ledgers and other items from Neilson’s, dating back to 1872.

The Department of Archives and Special Collections is now home to a collection of accounting ledgers and other items from Neilson’s, dating back to 1872.

OXFORD, Miss. – The first day of October 1962 was tense in Oxford, with soldiers patrolling the streets and smoke lingering in the air. But the day after historic riots at the University of Mississippi was a solid one for downtown businesses, according to ledgers from the J.E. Neilson Co. department store.

“It was a pretty good day of business,” said Neilson’s owner Will Lewis Jr. “I don’t know why – they still had troops around the Square. I guess people were curious and came in and bought something.”

Lewis has donated a collection of handwritten accounting ledgers, correspondence and daybooks from the store to the University of Mississippi’s J.D. Williams Library. The oldest continuously operating store in the South, Neilson’s began computerizing its sales and account information in the 1980s, so the yellowing ledgers and other records weren’t needed anymore.

They had been stored in a basement for years before Lewis, recognizing their value, offered them to the library’s Department of Archives and Special Collections. The 63 volumes, dating from the 1870s to the 1990s, offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of Lafayette County and Oxford.

“The documents themselves are a good indicator of the financial conditions of the town and county,” he said.

The collection will be of interest not only for its local history but also as a significant resource for scholars, especially historians seeking insight into a Southern town from Reconstruction through the end of the 20th century, said Jennifer Ford, head of the department.

“This significant donation will greatly supplement the department’s archival holdings relating to the history of Oxford and Lafayette County,” Ford said. “We are all sincerely grateful to Mr. Lewis and his family for this gift.”

The items detail transaction history and buying trends, which include how much local residents were able to spend at the time. For example, researchers can track the area’s economic downturn through sales at the beginning of the Great Depression, Lewis said.

Neilson’s also served a number of customers well known around town and, in some cases, worldwide. The Faulkner/Falkner family had customer accounts at Neilson’s, and William Faulkner is listed in several entries, including a $5 purchase – a large sum for the day – in 1928, not long before “The Sound and the Fury” was published.

Many University of Mississippi administrators and professors also had accounts at the store. Ledger entries chronicle Chancellor Robert Fulton, who served from 1892 to 1906, buying buttons and supplies for classes, for example.

Records also reveal that the store once had a thriving confectionery shop, although its inventory might seem odd by modern standards. Sales of cigars, oysters and oranges rivaled receipts for candy and other sweets.

William Smith Neilson of East Tennessee founded Neilson’s department store in 1839 after deciding to move to the former Chickasaw territory that had recently been opened to settlers. He briefly considered establishing his store in Memphis before deciding Oxford would be the best place.

The general store opened as a log cabin on the north side of the Courthouse Square, selling groceries, hardware and a variety of other items – even coffins – far different from the high-end clothing lines popular with modern customers. Neilson converted his money to gold before the Civil War, so when the store was burned along with much of Oxford in 1864, he was able to rebuild.

Besides ledgers and sales records, the collection includes ink blotter copies of personal and business correspondence between Neilson and his suppliers.

The store reopened in 1866 and has been open for business for 150 straight years.

It was passed down through the Neilson family to grandson David Neilson. Seeking to retire, he sold the business to Lewis and his sister, Olivia Lewis Nabors, in 1964. Their father, William Lewis Sr., worked at Neilson’s from 1912 to 1989.

The donated materials are a treasure trove of information about the community and the families who have lived here, Ford said.

“The collection will be much more usable for researchers once processed and indexed by our staff,” she said. “There are so many potential uses for the ledgers.

“I would love to see them used not only for academic research but by local families tracing their own histories.”

For more information about the Department of Archives and Special Collections, visit

Law School Conducts Professionalism Program

Incoming students participate in first-ever professionalism oath and pinning ceremony

Associate Justice Ann Hannaford Lamar, of the Mississippi Supreme Court, delivers the keynote address to incoming UM law students during the annual James O. Dukes Law School Professionalism Program. UM photo by Jordan Thomas

Associate Justice Ann Hannaford Lamar, of the Mississippi Supreme Court, delivers the keynote address to incoming UM law students during the annual James O. Dukes Law School Professionalism Program. UM photo by Jordan Thomas

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi School of Law recently hosted a number of judges and lawyers from across Mississippi during the annual James O. Dukes Law School Professionalism Program, a half-day program conducted by the Mississippi Bar Association as part of fall orientation.

After the program concluded, incoming law students participated in a ceremony that included an oath of professionalism. They also received a School of Law lapel pin as a symbol of their pledge to maintain the highest standards throughout their careers. This is the first year for the ceremony, which law school administrators plan to make an annual tradition.

The Dukes Professionalism Program, which began in 1999, is named for former bar president James O. “Jimmy” Dukes, who had a vision for mentoring law students on professionalism.

“Jimmy was instrumental in helping the bar and our profession focus on the importance of high standards and civility in our practice,” said W. Briggs Hopson, III, president of the Mississippi Bar Association, addressing the first-year students.

“It’s never too early to start talking about the importance of professionalism. The challenges that we face as attorneys are the same challenges that you will face as a law student.”

Associate Justice Ann Hannaford Lamar, of the Mississippi Supreme Court, delivered the keynote address of the Aug. 18 program.

“I hope you all recognize that this is a calling,” she said. “Those of us who have the privilege to be a part of this profession know that it is an honorable profession with the highest tradition of service to our communities and to our fellow man. Lawyers are confidants, and they are counselors who represent clients during the most difficult times of their lives.”

Incoming students in the UM School of Law take a professionalism oath at this year's orientation session for first-year students. UM photo by Jordan Thomas

Incoming students in the UM School of Law take a professionalism oath at this year’s orientation session for first-year students. UM photo by Jordan Thomas

As part of the Dukes Professionalism Program, students participated in breakout sessions, facilitated by lawyers and judges from across the state. The students were given real-world scenarios and asked how they would handle the situation.

“Take a good look at these distinguished judges and lawyers who have taken the day out of their very busy practice to come to Oxford and to take part in this professionalism program,” Lamar said. “They are here to help you understand that ethics and civility and professionalism are not just buzzwords that we use. They are what we strive for in our profession.”

Following the sessions, students and facilitators enjoyed a luncheon sponsored by the Ole Miss Law Alumni Chapter.

Afterward, first-year students participated in the inaugural pinning ceremony. Macey Edmondson, assistant dean for student affairs, incorporated the oath and pinning with orientation for several reasons.

“It’s important to stress why being professional, courteous, and trustworthy is so important to the legal community,” Edmondson explained. “Attorneys represent clients’ interests; an attorney’s own reputation should not hinder the ability to represent the client effectively.

“Furthermore, we are a self-regulating profession. Attorneys must conduct themselves and hold other attorneys to high standards. Finally, professionalism begins from day one of law school. A student’s legal reputation begins at orientation, and we felt that the professionalism oath put them on notice of what is expected in the legal profession.”

New UM Academic Adviser Enjoys Building Structures and Futures

BGS program counselor helps students construct an academic pathway to successful careers

Christie Rogers (right), an academic adviser for the UM Bachelor of General Studies program, enjoys building Lego structures with her sons "D" (left) and Currie. She began her new position working with students in the BGS program this month in Oxford. Photo courtesy Don Rogers

Christie Rogers (right), an academic adviser for the UM Bachelor of General Studies program, enjoys building Lego structures with her sons “D” (left) and Currie. She began her new position working with students in the BGS program this month in Oxford. Photo courtesy Don Rogers

OXFORD, Miss. – Putting together 1,000-piece Lego displays is a regular occurrence at the home of Christie Rogers. Her dining room table is home to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, an entire cityscape with three-story buildings, a police station, Avengers characters and Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine.

“The feeling of accomplishment you get when you’ve struggled, tried every possible solution and finally get the right fit; that’s why I love building projects with Legos,” Rogers said.

Rogers began working a different type of puzzle this month as she steps into her new role as an academic counselor for the University of Mississippi’s Bachelor of General Studies program.

“I’m excited to help students put together the pieces of their academic journey,” Rogers said. “I hope I can help them set goals and make plans for their future.

“I want to encourage them to look at what’s working for them academically and what might not be. I hope to talk through the challenges and set them up for success.”

Originally from Martin, Tennessee, Rogers completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Martin, and went on to complete her master’s degree in community counseling there in 1997.

In 1994 she began her first job in the higher education field with the office of UT-Martin’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs and affirmative action. There, Rogers was able to advise students and also work with university entities to make sure programs and classes were compliant to American Disability Act standards.

In 1998, she and her husband, Don Rogers, moved to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and both began working for Southeast Missouri State University. She became the academic coordinator at the Sikeston Area Higher Education Center, a partnership between Southeast and Three Rivers Community College.

“Working at the Sikeston Center was a great learning experience,” Rogers said. “It was my job to look out for our students and help them navigate transfer credits so they were on the path to graduate.”

In July 2001, the couple moved to Oxford when Don accepted a position as a residence hall area coordinator with Ole Miss.

“We lived in an apartment in Garland Hall,” Rogers recalled. “I brought our first-born son, Donald, home to that dorm in May 2002. So, I guess he has literally been an Ole Miss kid his whole life.”

The family later moved to faculty housing at Northgate Hall when their second child, Currie, was born in 2004.

“Some of the college kids would stop by when we were outside and play with the boys,” Rogers said. “One time a student brought us a big box of Legos he didn’t want anymore, and that is when our new hobby began.”

Rogers said that for Christmas and birthdays, her two children begged for new Lego sets.

“The more we built, the more we enjoyed it, so we kept going,” Rogers said. “I would love to be a Lego master builder one day.”

From 2007 to 2012, Rogers worked as a 4-year-old preschool teacher at Oxford-University Methodist Church. She then transitioned to a teaching assistant and office staff member at Bramlett Elementary within the Oxford School District.

“I really enjoyed my time teaching fundamentals to the younger children because those early building blocks are so important,” Rogers said. “But I also enjoy working with college students who are nearing the end of their formal education and need just a little guidance to put all of their hard work into a career plan.”

Within just a few weeks of Rogers starting, her impact on students was apparent, said Terry Blackmarr, the BGS program’s assistant to the dean.

“Within the first week, we received an email from a student thanking Christie for helping her,” Blackmarr said. “The student was so grateful. She just helped calm the student and take her nervousness away.”

Rogers said that when she saw the position open within the BGS program, she thought it seemed like a very interesting degree with potential for great student success stories.

“I liked that this degree was not a cookie-cutter program,” she said. “It made room for individuality. I have seen people making some really creative choices in order to gain the knowledge they need to do something special with their career.

“I’ve also seen folks who have taken a winding path in their career, and this degree can help get them where they ultimately want to be. Paths in your life can be a puzzle sometime, I hope I can be of assistance to our BGS students and really incorporate their goals and navigate their career journey.”

Rogers’ experience in advising and counseling has reinforced her love for students and academic advising, Blackmarr said.

“She develops an instant rapport with everyone she meets,” she said.

Rogers will continue getting to know UM students this fall as she advises some of the 350 BGS majors on the Oxford campus.

“Priorities do change, and people change their minds about their career,” Rogers said. “A degree like this is perfect for today’s generation who want to be individuals and want to choose their own path.

“There are a lot of pieces out there, and I want to help them put together the right ones their own personal and academic success.”

The BGS academic program is found within UM’s Division of Outreach and Continuing Education. For more information, visit

Alumni, Friends Provide Record $194.3 Million to Support UM

Private support sustains university and propels academics, research, athletics across campuses

OXFORD, Miss. – Strong private support, primarily directed to specific programs, enables the University of Mississippi to strengthen its faculty, increase student scholarships, contribute to research discoveries and help improve health care for all ages.

Incoming freshmen assemble DNA models during Biology Bootcamp, a five-day intensive program to prepare them for BISC 160: Biological Sciences. Private giving supports academic programs such as these, as well as scholarships, faculty, outreach and more. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

Incoming freshmen assemble DNA models during Biology Bootcamp, a five-day intensive program to prepare them for BISC 160: Biological Sciences. Private giving supports academic programs such as these, as well as scholarships, faculty, outreach and more. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

In the UM Foundation’s fiscal year ending June 30, private donors and foundations committed a record $194.3 million to support programs, facilities and students across all campuses.

The contributions supported academics on the Oxford campus, the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and on UM’s regional campuses throughout the state. Additionally, private giving supports Ole Miss athletics programs, facilities and student-athletes.

“The University of Mississippi has a unique role in advancing society through the discovery, creation and dissemination of knowledge,” Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. “We are so grateful for the generous donations of our loyal alumni and friends. Their support is helping us transform lives through education and elevate the quality of life for all our citizens.”

Fiscal year 2016 was bolstered by a number of major gifts: a $25 million gift to the Forward Together Campaign for athletics from Jerry “Doc” Hollingsworth of Niceville, Florida; a $20 million pledge to Batson Children’s Hospital from the Friends of Children’s; a $10 million pledge from Joe and Kathy Sanderson, of Laurel, to kick off a $100 million campaign for Children’s of Mississippi at UMMC; and a $2 million gift from the Brockman Foundation to establish a chair within the Patterson School of Accountancy in honor of the late Don Jones of Oxford.

Administrators acknowledge it’s unlikely that single gifts of this magnitude will be repeated in the 2017 fiscal year, but university development staff will be reaching out to alumni, friends, corporations and foundations to continue the fundraising success. Private support for UM has exceeded $100 million in each of the last five years.

“Private giving is vital to recruiting and retaining the nation’s best educators to teach and mentor our students,” said Alice Clark, interim vice chancellor for university relations. “Less than 15 percent of our operating revenue comes from state appropriations, so the resources provided by our generous donors are absolutely essential to reach our goals in bolstering faculty support, as well as attracting funds for student scholarships, construction, library resources and more.”

The state’s flagship university boasts the largest student body among Mississippi’s public universities, necessitating the addition of more than 200 faculty members over the next three years.

Cash gifts of all sizes combined for $118.8 million, with new pledges (as yet unrealized) adding up to more than $61 million. Donors committed more than $14 million in planned and deferred gifts to Ole Miss.

“Our fiscal 2016 private support totals are truly outstanding,” said Wendell Weakley, president and CEO of the UM Foundation, which had a five-year endowment investment return of 5.2 percent as of June 30. “However, we must continue to push even harder to meet the growing cash needs of the university.”

Donor participation on the Oxford campus increased by more than 16 percent as the number of gifts rose from 52,500 in 2015 to 55,000 in fiscal year 2016. These generous contributions from alumni, private foundations and corporations, friends, parents and others have built an endowment of more than $600 million.

Donor impact reaches every area of the university, including its Medical Center campus.

“Every gift is a stepping stone toward our goal of a healthier Mississippi,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “Our generous donors took us closer to that goal this year, giving the record amount of $60 million.

“We are especially grateful to Joe and Kathy Sanderson’s capable leadership of our $100 million Children’s of Mississippi campaign and their financial gift that pushes us a long way toward our goal. Year after year, the people of Mississippi rise to the challenge in terms of giving.”

The Ole Miss Athletics Foundation also had a record year, generating $45.6 million in cash donations, breaking the previous record of $35.2 million set in 2015. With the highest-ever membership at 17,773 and counting, OMAF donors anticipate the soon-to-be-unveiled improvements to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Swayze Field and other sports facilities made possible by their contributions.

“On behalf of Ole Miss athletics, including our coaches and our talented student-athletes, I would like to thank Rebel Nation for their generous contributions over the past year that set a new standard in fundraising,” Athletics Director Ross Bjork said. “The Ole Miss family continues to grow, and the support allows us to continue giving Rebels the highest quality student-athlete experience.”

The Forward Together campaign has topped $167.5 million in commitments with $30 million in new pledges for the fiscal year. The foundation reached the original goal of $150 million for the Forward Together campaign during 2016 and raised the goal to $200 million. With $32.5 million remaining, the new mark is anticipated to be met by June 2017.

“Alumni and friends who give back play an integral role in helping the university improve,” Weakley said. “We could not be more appreciative of those who’ve shared their hard-earned resources with the university and our students.”

For information on providing financial support to the University of Mississippi, visit

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter Speaker for UM Fall Convocation

New, transfer students to be presented commemorative coin in Tuesday welcome ceremony

UM Chancellor Preferred Candidate Dr. Jeffrey S. Vitter speaks during the first morning listening session. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

Chancellor Jeff Vitter is set to deliver the keynote address for the university’s annual Fall Convocation. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Jeffrey S. Vitter, the University of Mississippi’s 17th chancellor, will deliver the keynote address to the institution’s first-year and transfer students Tuesday (Aug. 23) during the annual Fall Convocation.

The event begins at 7 p.m. in The Pavilion at Ole Miss. Incoming freshmen and transfer students receive a free, limited edition commemorative coin as part of the program.

Others on the program with Vitter include Morris Stocks, provost and executive vice chancellor; Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs; Melinda Sutton, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students; and Austin Powell, Associated Student Body president.

“It is an honor to speak at freshman convocation,” Vitter said. “I’m especially excited to have an opportunity to engage with the Class of 2020 during my first fall at Ole Miss and to challenge them to examine and commit to the principles of our Creed.

“Higher education has great power to transform lives, and by engaging with one another with civility and respect, we open our minds to new perspectives and possibilities.”

Stocks encouraged students to come be inspired by Vitter.

“Among the many fine chancellors this university has had, Jeffrey Vitter is on his way to becoming one of the absolute best,” Stocks said. “Those who hear him share his reflections during the Fall Convocation are sure to leave challenged and inspired.”

The coin distribution has become a much-anticipated part of the ceremony, Hephner LaBanc said.

“I have the privilege of presenting these coins each year, and it is one of the highlights of the year for me,” she said. “The coins signify the importance of their transition into the UM community, but is a physical reminder of their responsibility to work, every day, toward graduation day.”

Students also received a copy of Sherman Alexie’s best-selling collection, “Ten Little Indians” (Grove Press, 2004), which was selected earlier this year as the 2016 Common Reading Experience. They were instructed to read the volume before the start of classes.

“‘Ten Little Indians’ is a collection of poignant and emotionally meaningful stories of Native Americans at cultural and personal crossroads,” said Leslie Banahan, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and co-chair of the Common Reading Experience Committee. “The book was selected for a number of reasons, including the belief that students would enjoy the variety of this collection of very readable short stories. The story themes vary but speak to both universal experiences as well as those that are specific to the Native American condition.”

For more information on Fall Convocation and other campus events, visit

UM Professor Helps Honor Mentor

Jared Spears captures longtime NMCC educator John Osier's spirit in sculpted monument

Jared Spears, a University of Mississippi faculty member and alumnus of Northwest Mississippi Community College, has sculped a monument in memory of mentor and beloved NMCC English instructor John Osier. Photo courtesy NMCC

Jared Spears, a University of Mississippi faculty member and alumnus of Northwest Mississippi Community College, has sculped a monument in memory of mentor and beloved NMCC English instructor John Osier. Photo courtesy NMCC

SENATOBIA, Miss. – In his obituary, John Osier, a beloved Northwest Mississippi Community College English instructor was described as “a quiet, private, common and remarkable man.” The published author of four novels and numerous short stories and magazine articles, Osier was a “household name” around Northwest for the 35 years he taught at the college.

In 1993, Osier was honored by the Senatobia Chamber of Commerce as “Higher Education Teacher of the Year.” That was also the same year an 18-year-old freshman, Jared Spears, sat in Osier’s summer creative writing class and dreamed of becoming a writer like his teacher.

Although writing was not to become Spears’ career, he drew inspiration from Osier that has helped him in not only his own teaching career at the University of Mississippi, but also in his career as an artist and sculptor.

When Spears was approached by Osier’s widow, Barbara, and asked to sculpt the monument for Osier’s grave, he jumped at the chance.

“I told her that I had known John and had admired him,” said Spears, who teaches design and drawing in the UM Department of Theatre Arts. “That made this whole project pretty special to me. Just the serendipity of it all. ”

Spears is no stranger to Northwest. He spent his first five years living on the Senatobia campus. His father, Gary Lee Spears, who served the college as registrar for many years, is in his 11th year as president of the college, and his mother, Marilyn, spent 26 years as an early childhood technology education teacher and was director of the program for many of those years.

As a child, Spears was well acquainted with renowned Northwest potter Lane Tutor, who allowed him to practice and explore art in his studio.

While at Northwest, Spears was a member of Les Fauves Art Club, a Northwest recruiter, president of the Northwest Players Club and a member of Phi Theta Kappa. He acted in several productions on the Northwest stage and also worked on the crew as well.

Spears received an Irene Ryan Acting Award nomination and a scenic design award. He was a member of the Northwest Hall of Fame, the highest honor a student can receive.

“A bunch of us kids from Senatobia High School tried to get a jump on things and took the creative writing class in the summer from Mr. Osier,” Spears said. “I just thought he was cool, and that is the only way I could have described it back then, but it was so much more than that.

“He knew his material so well and he knew how to put it out there in such a way that we could understand whatever he was trying to teach us. He was such an inspiration and had such a command of the classroom. I still do things in my classroom today that I learned from him.”

John Osier. Photo courtesy NMCC

John Osier. Photo courtesy NMCC

Her husband would be pleased to know that he had made a difference in some of his students’ lives, Barbara Osier said.

“Although teaching was a way to pay the bills and still have time to write, he truly enjoyed teaching and sharing his love of literature with his students,” she said.

After graduating from Northwest, Spears attended Delta State University and began studying art.

“I got a classical art education there,” Spears said. “You learned not only how to draw, but how to see. You cannot draw anything that anyone else can understand unless you can truly see the world as three-dimensional objects in light and shadow and reality. It’s a real tool that they gave me and it is something I use as a teacher today.”

Spears received his bachelor’s degree in sculpture and printmaking from DSU in 1999. In 2000 he moved to Taylor, a thriving arts community, and decided to pursue his master’s degree from Ole Miss. He earned his MFA in scenic design in 2005 and joined the full-time faculty after graduation.

A video documentary featuring Spears’ traditional stone-carving techniques is housed in the Rinzler Archives of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Cultural Heritage and was featured as part of the 2005 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

In 2010, he and several colleagues received a Special Achievement Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters for the multimedia collaboration piece, “The Passions of Walter Anderson: A Dramatic Celebration of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Artist.”

Spears and his younger brother, Daniel, have played together in various musical groups over the past 15 or so years.

“We like to play ‘ole timey’ regional music,” Spears said. “We play music from the early 1900s with an emphasis on instrumentation – big groups with horns and strings. I play guitar and sing. We really lean toward folk, jazz and early rock and roll with an improvisational bent.”

On a visit to Taylor, Lane Tutor and his wife, Susan, visited with Spears and saw that he was sculpting a three-dimensional monument for another family. Impressed with Spears’ work, Susan Tutor mentioned the monument to Barbara Osier, who contacted Spears and asked him to consider the project.

“I think Barbara and her son, Wes, were comfortable with me and pretty much gave me carte blanche,” Spears said.

He presented his idea in drawings and maquettes to the Osiers. They liked what Spears had planned for the monument and agreed that he was the one they wanted to complete it. The sculpture took about a year to finish.

“I like the direct nature of carving stone,” Spears said. “I think I am more exacting and deliberate in my approach. I have an agenda when I start.”

For this project, Spears carved a limestone slab, which is recessed into the granite monument. The bas-relief is no more than an inch at its deepest. He worked with Mike Sanders of Batesville to create the base of the monument. He also created the lettering.

On the top of the monument is a Celtic cross.

“The reason Wes and I chose the Celtic cross was that John loved Ireland,” Barbara Osier said. “I told Jared about the cross that John bought for me in Dublin on my birthday. He took a picture of it and that is the cross on the monument. That just shows the care and thought that Jared put into this project.”

Besides representing Osier, the monument also reflects characters from his novels, Spears said.

“The figure in the foreground is John, wearing the driver’s cap he often wore in later years,” Spears said. “I think John always identified with his characters. In each of his novels, the central character always seeks refuge in an old building or a hideout in the woods.

“So it’s kind of an archetypal image of a man going on to the beyond. I wanted it to be timeless and stylized.”

Spears also used rounded forms, drawing inspiration from the Works Progress Administration’s art deco reliefs found on the old Senatobia High School Auditorium, in the monument.

The artist is working on a monument for another family and hopes to continue to carve these types of projects, but he thinks that the Osier monument will always be special because of his relationship with the family and with Northwest.

“It’s a stately looking monument that I am really proud of, and I think the family is too,” Spears said. “It is in a beautiful place in the cemetery, not far from where he lived, which I think is kind of special.”

“John loved art, and that is one reason that my son Wes and I wanted this special monument to him,” Barbara Osier said. “I feel that Jared captured John’s spirit and what he was about.”

NCNPR Scientist Honored for Parasitic Diseases Research

Babu Tekwani presented Distinguished Scientist Award for work on tropical illnesses

Left to Right: Professor María Martínez Valladares DVM, PhD, Researcher at the University of León (Institute of Mountain Livestock),Rafael Balaña-Fouce PhD, Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of León (ULE, Spain) and Scientific Director of the Institute of Biotechnology of León (INBIOTEC),Babu Tekwani,Rojo-Vázquez PhD, Professor of Parasitology at the Animal Health Department of Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of León (Spain)

From left, María Martínez Valladares, a researcher at the University of León (Institute of Mountain Livestock), Rafael Balaña-Fouce, professor of biomedical sciences at the University of León and scientific director of the Institute of Biotechnology of León, Babu Tekwani, principal scientist at the UM National Center for Natural Products Research, and Rojo-Vázquez, professor of parasitology at the Animal Health Department of Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of León.

OXFORD, Miss. – Babu Tekwani, a principal scientist in the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research and professor of pharmacology in the School of Pharmacy, has been honored for his contributions to global drug discovery in tropical parasitic diseases.

Tekwani received the Distinguished Scientist Award at the inaugural Global Challenges in Neglected Tropical Diseases conference, hosted by the Universidad de León and Fundación General Universidad de León y Empresa in July in León, Spain.

The researcher has researched neglected tropical parasitic diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis (an infection spread by sandflies) and human African trypanosomiasis (aka sleeping sickness) for more than 30 years. His work has identified potential new molecular targets and sources for anti-parasitic drugs that would help eradicate these diseases, and developed new ways to test the drugs’ efficacy.

“I am very pleased to see this recognition of Dr. Tekwani’s leadership and sustained research effort toward combating these diseases, which devastate so much of the world,” said Larry Walker, NCNPR director. “His work at NCNPR has resulted in the establishment and growth of a robust and productive anti-parasitic drug discovery program.”

The conference was founded to discuss the progress and challenges of anti-parasitic drug discovery, a response to a 2015 Nobel Prize awarded to researchers who discovered therapies to combat roundworm parasites and malaria parasites.

Tekwani was among several advisers for the conference, which included scientists from more than 25 countries. He also delivered the closing keynote address, “New Anti-Parasitic Drug Discovery from Natural Products: Challenges and Opportunities.”

“With his outstanding research contributions on tropical parasitic diseases, Dr. Tekwani rightly deserves to achieve this recognition,” said Rafael Balaña-Fouce, professor of biomedical sciences at the University of León and the event’s organizer.

Neglected tropical diseases are categorized as such if they disproportionately affect impoverished people and traditionally have not been the subject of much research. Tekwani’s work in this area has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health, World Health Organization and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in India.

“Tropical parasitic diseases are major global health problems and threats to human health,” Tekwani said. “Almost half of the world’s population is exposed to the risk of being affected with one of these diseases.

“With the emergence of drug-resistant and more virulent strains of the pathogens, there is a constant need for discovery of new drugs. It’s encouraging to get your research recognized globally.”

Two UM Colleagues United by Kidney Transplant

Decades-long friendship yields lifesaving surgery, lifelong connection

Kidney transplant recipient Charlotte Pegues (right) gets a warm embrace from her living donor and friend Leslie Banahan. (Photo by Robert Jordan, UM Imaging Services)

Kidney transplant recipient Charlotte Pegues (right) gets a warm embrace from her living donor and friend Leslie Banahan. (Photo by Robert Jordan, UM Imaging Services)

OXFORD, Miss. – A crisis situation often reveals who one’s true friends are. University of Mississippi colleagues Charlotte Pegues and Leslie Banahan discovered the depths of their friendship recently when a health crisis for the former brought the latter to her rescue.

Three years ago, Pegues’ kidneys began to fail, eventually placing her in dire need of a transplant. Soon after hearing the news, Banahan volunteered to donate one of her own kidneys. Physicians determined the two were a match and the successful operation was performed June 9 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“I feel like Leslie is my sister,” said Pegues, assistant provost for academic affairs and registrar. “I want to repay her in some way, but she said this was a gift. It’s a God thing!”

Banahan, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, said she is grateful and honored that she was able to be there for her friend.

“I wouldn’t have done this for just anyone, but Charlotte is an amazing woman, someone I wanted to help so she could live a full, long, happy life with her husband, family and friends,” Banahan said. “We have a special connection now – sisters, really – as we have shared this journey together.”

Because becoming a living organ donor is a life-changing decision, Banahan said it was not a choice that she made quickly or without a great deal of research, prayer and consideration.

“Ultimately, my faith in God and my love for Charlotte led me to be a living organ donor,” she said.

When Pegues was referred to UMMC’s transplant team by her nephrologist in Oxford, she told them that she had a potential live donor, said Dr. James Wynn, professor of transplant surgery who performed Pegues’ kidney transplant.

“That’s the best transplant circumstances – when you can have a living donor,” Wynn said. UMMC’s procedure is to give the person in need of a transplant information to pass on to the potential donor. That person contacts UMMC to say they’d like to donate a kidney.

That’s what Banahan did. “We found that she was compatible with (Pegues) and also medically suitable,” Wynn said. “It’s great when that happens.”

Registered nurse Jessica Johnston served as Banahan’s living donor transplant coordinator. She arranged Banahan’s own surgery and pre-operative care, and made sure that she fully understood the risks – and that she could change her mind at any time.

“She was very intent on helping her friend,” Johnston said. “It’s a very selfless act to give up a kidney. There are risks to the donor, so these are pretty special people who volunteer to do this.

“It seems like a very short process, but it’s very intensive and very thorough,” Johnston said of the weeks leading up to the transplant.

The day of surgery, Banahan’s kidney was removed by Dr. Mark Earl, associate professor of transplant surgery. It was carried one operating room over, where Pegues was prepped for her own surgery. Within about an hour, Banahan’s kidney was transplanted into Pegues, Earl said.

The entire process took about three hours, Wynn said.

Part of registered nurse Mollie King’s job is to give post-surgery transplant patients emotional support and to answer their questions at any time. Pegues “always talks to me about Leslie,” King said.

“She’s nicknamed her kidney as Carlie – a combination of Charlotte and Leslie. We joke about how Carlie is doing. She’s grateful, very knowledgeable and she wants to know everything about all aspects of her care. She’s had her ups and downs, but she looks good and she feels good.

“Her transplant is working excellently. Carlie’s working well.”

Charlotte Pegues (center) talks with registered nurse Mollie King and surgeon Dr. James Wynn during a post-op exam at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where Pegues received a successful kidney transplant in June. Photo by Marc Rolph/UMMC Public Affairs

Charlotte Pegues (center) talks with registered nurse Mollie King and surgeon Dr. James Wynn during a post-op exam at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where Pegues received a successful kidney transplant in June. Photo by Marc Rolph/UMMC Public Affairs

Pegues’ nephrologist encouraged her to pursue being placed on the transplant waiting lists in December 2013. She told Banahan and her other friends at that time. She was listed at three centers since 2014, and began peritoneal dialysis treatments at home in January 2016.

“The treatment lasted for eight hours each night, and that doesn’t include time spent connecting and disconnecting to the machine,” Pegues said. “What a relief that those days are behind me!”

“Leslie is a confidant and I trust her,” Pegues said. “She is a very caring and generous person. She continually looks for ways to help people and improve upon what’s already being done.”

“Charlotte never, never complains about being sick or feeling bad, so it was a surprise when she told me that she was going to need a kidney transplant,” Banahan said.

Banahan said that she prayed that her friend would get a kidney and be healthy once again. But the kidney never came, Pegues’ kidneys failed and she had to go on dialysis.

“That’s when I first thought about the possibility of giving her a kidney,” Banahan said. “I spoke to a couple physicians and had several conversations with the living organ donor coordinator at UMMC.

“I decided not to tell Charlotte I was trying to be her donor until I had passed the first couple of medical tests. When those tests yielded encouraging results, I told her that I wanted to give her a kidney.”

Pegues was still amazed when Banahan offered the organ donation.

“I felt so grateful that she offered to give me such a generous gift,” Pegues said. “When she told me she had started the process of being tested, I was overjoyed. Even before it was determined that she was a match, I was so touched that she considered doing such a thing for me.”

The matching process took some time because of the extensive testing involved. After it was determined the two were compatible, they set a surgery date that worked with their schedules.

“My husband and family were thrilled, to say the least,” Pegues said. “My husband said that I really have a true friend.”

Before becoming a living organ donor, Banahan conferred with her family.

“I discussed the idea with my two adult children,” she said. “They were both so encouraging and supportive of my decision.”

Since the procedure, Pegues has been continuing her recovery at home.

“As one would expect, I experienced pain in the days immediately following the surgery,” she said. “I rested a lot because there was not much else I could do. Simple tasks wore me out, but I feel stronger each day.”

Banahan said her first couple of weeks after the surgery were challenging.

“There was quite a bit of pain,” she said. “Then, for me, it was a matter of regaining strength and stamina. At eight weeks after surgery, I feel good and am working full time.”

The two agreed that they received excellent care at UMMC and have learned several things through this process.

“First, there is a state law which grants up to six weeks of leave to an organ donor so that the individual does not have to use personal or medical leave,” Pegues said. “Second, there is a tax credit of up to $10,000 available to donors for expenses they incurred such as travel and hotel accommodations. Third and finally, all medical expenses (testing, hospital services) are charged to the recipient.”

“There has been no financial cost to me at all throughout this entire process,” Banahan said. “I hope our story encourages others to consider being a living organ donor.”

Live donors aren’t uncommon nationally, but it can be difficult to find good candidates in the Deep South.

“Part of our challenge is that we serve a predominantly African-American population, and diabetes and high blood pressure are very common,” Wynn said. “Even when we have family members or friends willing to donate, they frequently have medical reasons for not being able to donate.”

The main consideration, Wynn said, is that the donor and recipient must have compatible blood types.

Banahan and other live donors are advised on the front end of the risks of surgery. Both donors and recipients go through an evaluation process at UMMC to ensure that the donation is being made freely and without coercion, and that donors are doing it for the right reasons, King said.

“Facing a major operation is a worrisome thing, and a lot of our focus is to allay the fears” of both donors and recipients, Wynn said. “Because of the precautions we take, it’s the safest operation we do. There’s risk, but compared to any other major operation, it’s extremely safe.

“The more important question is, what’s the lifelong risk to the donor of having only one kidney? We know the risk is not zero, but it’s extremely small. We are careful to make sure we identify the potential donors who have problems that can put them at risk for kidney failure.”

While Pegues and Banahan made a model donation team, at least 700 people are on UMMC’s waiting list for a kidney transplant, Wynn said.

“We did 77 kidney transplants in the first six months of this year,” he said. “That shows there’s a large gap between the number waiting, and the number of donations available. Donation is a great thing.”

UMMC is making strides in growing its live organ donor program.

“It’s a beautiful gift to give upon your death, but we want to make more people aware that there’s the option of live donation,” Johnston said.

Pegues and Banahan have “such a beautiful friendship,” Johnston said. “When you are a living donor, that’s a gift that keeps on giving. Leslie will give this gift to Charlotte every day.”

Fatefully, it was a work crisis that initially brought the two Ole Miss employees together in the mid-1990s.

“Leslie was working in international programs and I was working in admissions,” Pegues said. “We were assigned to work on a very sensitive student issue.”

“The assignment required us to spend quite a bit of time together, and I was quickly impressed with Charlotte’s intelligence, professional knowledge and skills, and her no-nonsense approach to our work,” Banahan said. “We were a good team, and I knew she was someone I could trust and count on to make good decisions.”

Resolving the matter at hand, the two continued working together on various projects and committees. Both eventually served as assistant vice chancellors for student affairs, positions that afforded them the opportunity to work together on a daily basis. What began as a professional relationship developed into a strong friendship.

“Leslie is always kind and professional,” Pegues said. “Having both held positions of assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, we worked closely together for several years. We spent a lot of time working on very serious matters. From what I recall, I think we agreed on most things.”

Pegues is “a person of strong faith and personal values” who possesses a great sense of humor, Banahan said.

“I think we both are fairly optimistic people, and we both chose careers in higher education,” she said. “I’m sure we have disagreed occasionally, but I honestly can’t remember a specific disagreement. While our life stories are very different, we just connected and supported one another.”