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Childhood Inspires a Career in Science

January 10, 2021

She’d stare into his eyes and make little vocalization noises as she tried to “talk” to him. “Clearly she was intelligent,” Benton Berigan said of Bunny, his childhood dog. She knew a lot of tricks and he always thought it was interesting to see how she would try to make decisions. Her behavior sparked his interests in science and he became curious about how the brain works, not only in animals but also in humans. When his grandmother’s battle with Parkinson’s disease progressed to include movement deficiencies as well as dementia and hallucinations, it made him wonder how our ability to move is related to our memory and perception of reality. 

Pursuing Science

Berigan says he wasn’t a very good science student during high school. However, while pursuing an associate’s degree at St. Louis Community College Meramec (STLCC) he started to excel in his science classes. “It’s funny how things change considering I’ve almost earned a doctoral degree in biology,” he said. 

After community college, he went on to double major in psychology and biology at the University of Missouri (MU) where he became interested in neuroscience. As an undergraduate, he conducted research with Lorin Milescu, Ph.D., to explore how protein-protein interactions in the brain can change breathing activity in rats. 

Cannabis Advocacy  

During his first semester as an undergraduate at the MU, Berigan joined the advocacy organization NORML on MU’s campus. According to the group, they are a voice for responsible cannabis consumers, and their mission includes educating the public on the responsible use of cannabis by adults, medical uses of cannabis, and agricultural opportunities of industrial hemp.

As the Vice President of NORML he had the opportunity to attend a national conference in Los Angeles where he met doctors, nurses, lawyers, and scientists who were advocating for the medical use of cannabis and researching how patients could benefit from it, he said. His interests were piqued when he met knowledgeable and well-respected individuals in the field, and this made him take a closer look at the evidence for medical cannabis and its effectiveness. He also saw further implications. “I started to see the intersectionality of cannabis, society and law, and how those laws were having real world implications on people’s lives. I learned about mass incarceration, racial profiling and origin of our nation’s drug laws. All of this opened my eyes to a lot of different things including how to get involved with drug policy,” he said. 

During graduate school, he served as Director of National Affairs for the official student graduate and professional student government at the University of Missouri, where he monitored policy related to higher education, federal loan rates and opportunities, international students. Along with his VP role he was the president and treasurer in the NORML MU organization. He led efforts to register students to vote, collecting signatures for local and state-wide initiatives, and mobilizing students to Washington D.C. on several occasions to meet with federal lawmakers. During one of his visits to meet with lawmakers, he said he was shocked by how misinformed a lot of them were on the basic science of cannabis as well as the current bills. “I knew there was a lot of work to be done. But I was also encouraged by how receptive lawmakers were to my perspective. It was just really enlightening, as well as motivating to keep focusing on this issue, and trying to advocate for the reform of cannabis laws,” he said.

Prior to presenting his own research to lawmakers, his first experience speaking with them was advocating for the reform of cannabis laws. Berigan had the opportunity to share this research directly with state legislators at the UM System Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol. “As a young scientist, it was hard to explain my research to legislators, but the whole experience helped me realize that I need to be able to share my research with other people,” Berigan said. 

His curiosity of science led him to pursue graduate education at MU, where he started work on a collaborative National Science Foundation (NSF) grant funded by the federal BRAIN Initiative to explore the possibility of using a recently discovered temperature sensitive gene found in fruit flies as a new research tool. As part of this project, Berigan developed an experimental system to record brain activity from individual cells within a living fruit fly during various temperature conditions to see how those cells would respond to the temperature. This work led to several presentations at international conferences as well as a first author publication  in a peer-reviewed journal.

In a second project that Benton recently started, he is working to characterize the gene expression and functional activity of cells that control the bladder, genitals, and lower colon activity in mice. He hopes that this research will go on to develop new therapeutic strategies for patients with spinal cord injuries and neurodegenerative diseases.

Before starting his recent project on mice, Benton spent time in Hawaii as laboratory director for a private company as an analytical chemistry company testing the safety and compliance of medical cannabis that would be sold on the shelves at dispensaries. It wasn’t an experience he was looking for or expecting but it fell in front of him he said, and he was able to get his scientific training for cannabis. From there he went on to California for five weeks, training in a couple of laboratories and learning different techniques for testing medical cannabis that was going to be sold on the selves at dispensaries. He tested products for cannabinoid potency looking for microbial contamination such as mold or yeast or any bacteria that could be disruptive to someone that has an immunosuppressed or depressive disorder. 

He had always been interested in cannabis from a scientific perspective because he was reading papers and learning about the endocannabinoid system through his education. He explained, “It's a complex cell-signaling system throughout our entire brain and nervous system, and it uses cannabinoids produced in our own bodies, endocannabinoids, to do all kinds of things. For example, endocannabinoids help send information to our brain when we are hungry or if we’re in pain. Cannabinoids found in cannabis bind to the same receptors as the cannabinoids that we produce in our own bodies.” Specifically, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the most known cannabinoids found in cannabis, and it has been shown to be responsible for psychological effects of cannabis. In comparison, cannabidiol (CBD) is a different cannabinoid found in cannabis shown to have anti-inflammatory properties as well as anti-epileptic properties. For example, children with an untreatable form of Epilepsy, such as Dravet syndrome, have been shown to respond well to CBD rich cannabis products, Berigan said. 

As he looks forward to defending his dissertation this year, Benton plans to continue his scientific training as he looks for opportunities that life may bring next.

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