For a richly informed perspective on research, consider the impressive credentials of Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, president of Palm Beach Atlantic University:
Yet as Schwinn talks about research, she points back to her time as an undergraduate: fruitful years spent in The College of Wooster, a small liberal arts school in Ohio.
“A broad liberal arts background fuels curiosity,” she said. “It builds critical thinking and analysis skills,” vital tools for a researcher. That’s one of the attractions she saw at PBA, where she became the University’s ninth president in May 2020.
“A liberal arts education fosters imagination, discovery and nimble problem-solving skills,” she said. “That’s what research is all about, and PBA students developing those attributes can make their mark in any field.”
Schwinn came to Palm Beach Atlantic from the University of Iowa, where she was associate vice president of medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. Prior to that she spent more than 15 years in leadership positions at Duke University Medical Center and the University of Washington in Seattle. Stanford awarded Schwinn its prestigious Lifetime Alumni Achievement Award, calling her a patent-holding innovator and “nationally known investigator in molecular pharmacology.”
Now at PBA, she’s eager to continue her track record of encouraging research, especially with cross-campus initiatives that have different departments and schools working together. “Each faculty member brings something unique to PBA,” Schwinn said. Her experience has shown that collaboration by scholars in different fields releases “a powerful synergy that can produce surprising results.”
She recalled the time when her lab joined forces with a senior professor of electrical and computer engineering. Together, with their students, they worked to develop a genetic test for malaria in Africa, to diagnose not only the presence of the disease, but also specific subtypes. “While our biologists worked methodically through DNA aspects of the question, with the traditional slow, exacting precision required of molecular scientists, the engineering students implemented diagnostic test methods before beginning to understand DNA methods.”
In another research experience that she found especially rewarding, Schwinn, with her specialty in molecular pharmacology, collaborated with a faculty member in urology. They discovered that specific subtypes of alpha-1-adrenergic receptors in prostate smooth muscle create dynamic changes that result in common symptoms in benign prostatic hypertrophy, a condition that occurs in most older men. By blocking these receptors with specific drugs, symptoms often could be relieved, to the point of eliminating the need for surgery.
She had embarked on that prostate research as a “side project,” but “ironically, that has been among the most transformative” of her projects in medicine, she said.
“Transformative” is a word and a goal that energizes Schwinn. She seizes upon that adjective to describe the educational experience at Palm Beach Atlantic, with its liberal arts depth and the growth that comes through research and other types of engaged learning.
“I believe that curious minds are developed when students are given real-world problems to solve as part of their education,” she said.
“Noticing something happens, and wondering why, is the essence of curiosity. The next step is to ask whether a better solution can be found and then bringing cross-disciplinary approaches to the table. Such a crucible, mixed with the Christ-first faith perspective that PBA emphasizes, results in our graduates doing amazing things.”