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POSTED BY

Jonathan Baker

How A Small City On The High Plains Became A Leader In Brain Research

On the northwestern edge of Amarillo, Texas, a collection of massive buildings looks out toward an unrolling landscape of arroyos, mesas and flickering yellow grass. Scanning this broken terrain, a visitor may think not much has changed here since the nineteenth century. In fact, Billy the Kid used to ride among these very gullies. But Billy himself would likely be shocked to learn that, inside these modern structures, some of the most advanced brain studies in the nation are being conducted.

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Through the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Amarillo has become a mecca for scientists from around the world who study what is known as the “brain-blood barrier,” a term for the wall in the brain that separates circulating blood from the nervous system. It’s this barrier that can prevent medicines from reaching neurons in the brain. Thus, the more scientists understand how the “BBB” works, the more they’ll be able to ease symptoms of — or even cure — neurological and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s, as well as brain cancers.

It might seem odd that such advanced research is being conducted in this small southwestern city, but it’s no accident. The Health Sciences Center was born from a concerted effort by local investors and educators, who long ago envisioned a school of medicine in the Texas Panhandle. That facility opened its doors in 1972, and the med school was later followed by a School of Allied Health and a School of Pharmacy. Dr. Paul Trippier, a chemist at the pharmacy school, says he loves the research environment in Amarillo.

“If I come up with something interesting,” Dr. Trippier says, “I can walk down the hall and there are pharmacologists there who can apply my research. I don’t have to send my research off to another city. It’s all under one roof.”

Dr. Trippier, a cheerful Englishman with a mischievous smile, studied at Oxford and Northwestern University before coming to the Panhandle. In Amarillo, he’s found not only a good place to apply his skills but also a wonderful city in which to raise a family.

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“I was weighing offers from three different cities. I chose to come here, mainly because of the people.”

And Dr. Trippier has no trouble finding new people to teach; the medical program at the Health Sciences Center is booming. The Health Sciences Center has boasted record enrollment every year since 2010. In fact, according to HSC president Tedd Mitchell, the school graduates more health care professionals than any other health-related institution in Texas.

To keep up with the influx of students, the facility just opened a new student-activity center, where future healers can play pool or study in individual, private study rooms. The school is dedicated to keeping class sizes small, another measure that has drawn students from across the country.

Of the highly competitive nursing school, Mitchell recently told the Amarillo Globe-News, “We had about 1,200 applications this year . . . for a total of about 225 slots.”

The Health Sciences Center currently hosts almost 5,000 students — a number that could jump significantly if plans to add a veterinary school move forward.

Amarillo has been investing in this medical center for almost half a century, and today that commitment is paying off — big time. Every day, here in this outpost on the wind-swept High Plains, chemists, pharmacologists, and future doctors and nurses work to improve the lives of people all over the world. Not a bad use for what, not so long ago, was a dusty collection of mesas and gullies.