Rita Cowell, Ph.D., is Fellow and Chair of the Neuroscience Department within the Drug Discovery Division. In this role, she maintains an independently-funded research program, while overseeing the Neuroscience Department with the mission of discovering novel, mechanism-based approaches to treat individuals with neurodegenerative disorders. The research in the Cowell Lab aims to determine how intrinsic transcriptional programs underlying neuronal heterogeneity give rise to selective vulnerability in neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Her research group is comprised of postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate trainees who are affiliated with Southern Research’s partner institution, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The lab is currently supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Cowell received her undergraduate degree in biology in 1997 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2002 from the University of Michigan, where she also completed her postdoctoral work. She began her independent research laboratory as an assistant professor at UAB in 2006, rising through the ranks to associate professor. She also served as co-director of the Neuroscience Graduate Theme for the Program in Biomedical Sciences at UAB and associate director for Communications and Outreach for the Civitan International Research Center before joining Southern Research in 2017.
Using a think tank-like model, she now directs the Neuroscience Department, utilizing its collective expertise in mechanisms of cell death/dysfunction and animal models of disease to identify and prioritize novel targets for small molecule identification using the unique high throughput capabilities of the Drug Discovery Division. Beyond these efforts to the institution, she actively facilitates interactions with local, national, and international groups interested in drug discovery and development in the neurosciences by serving as a liaison and consultant for extramural collaborations. Ongoing collaborations exist with scientists from UAB, HudsonAlpha in Huntsville, Alabama, and numerous other institutions, universities, and companies across the world. Cumulatively, her goal is to lead transformation of drug discovery in the field of neurodegeneration and to improve the lives of those suffering from these diseases.