Barbara Christie-Pope pushed for a cadaver room at Cornell and now chairs the committee formulating a major new health sciences initiative.
Barbara Christie-Pope remembers precisely when she first became interested in biology and the mysteries of life. It happened when her mother asked her to clean a chicken for the evening meal. “I took the chicken to the sink and cleaned it, but halfway through, I realized that I was actually dissecting the chicken. Later, during the meal, it dawned on me that I was actually eating muscle,” she says. After mentioning this to her mother, she was never asked to clean another chicken. Her curiosity in biology, however, had been piqued.
From these fowl beginnings, Christie-Pope started to discover the mysteries of life. “I love a good mystery, and I love to solve puzzles. Biology is such a great puzzle,” says Christie-Pope, who started teaching at Cornell part time in 1991 and was hired full time in 1994.
It’s evident from numerous models in her book-lined West Science Center office that her main focus is the brain. She schedules a free block each fall to allow time to present a series of public school demonstrations in which she takes real brains and talks about the effects of nutrition, drugs, injuries, and disease on the brain.
“The brain is the ultimate mystery. It’s like a giant two-sided puzzle—you can put one side together and try to understand how it all fits, but then flip it over and it’s a completely new puzzle,” she says.
Christie-Pope is the premed advisor and pushed for a cadaver room—a $30,000 proposition—because more and more Cornell students were taking human anatomy and physiology courses at a community college with a cadaver. She first offered the course without a cadaver. But, as she puts it, “dissecting a cat just doesn’t do it.” Three years ago she opened the cadaver lab and now uses it in nearly every course she teaches. “Word has gotten around that I teach it more like they would encounter at medical school,” she says. “I allow students to do dissections and case studies.”
Her current project is chairing a committee to formulate a health professions initiative with trustee and orthopedic surgeon Larry Dorr ’63. The initiative will emphasize a humanistic approach to science, while dramatically increasing internships, formalizing advising, and preparing students for medical school.
Christie-Pope began her career in research. She stayed on as a lab technician after graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology. Her supervisor was so impressed with her work that he brought her to New Orleans as head technician of a new lab. She was next recommended to the University of South Alabama, where she completed a 1986 doctorate in neuropharmacology, or the study of the action of drugs on the nervous system.
Since then, she has done volumes of research, much of it focusing on degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s. In one of her most exciting research projects, she helped unravel the mystery of a newly isolated neurotoxin’s effect on the brain, particularly its role in causing Parkinson’s disease. The research, groundbreaking at the time, further developed one theory of how Parkinson’s disease is caused.
She began teaching part time while conducting research in the Division of Neuropathology at Vanderbilt University. Her Cornell career began not long after she and her physician husband, Richard Pope, moved to Cedar Rapids. Their household includes three daughters (the oldest is a sophomore elementary education major at Cornell) and four dogs—three Siberian huskies and a 15-year-old miniature poodle.
“She’s deaf and blind and charming,” says Christie-Pope of the poodle who, until recently, belonged to an elderly patient of Pope’s.