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Shannon family on graduation day
From left: Mike Shannon, Sara Rose Shannon, Len White and Jennifer Shannon on Sara Rose's graduation day. Photo by Shannon Family

Gratitude in Mind

Parents’ gift honors an adviser who cultivated their daughter’s passion for brain science

If undergraduate advising done well is a fine art, Duke’s Len White might be the Picasso of college advisers.

That's how Sara Rose Shannon ’23 felt about White after she cold-emailed him looking for a neuroscience adviser and he skillfully guided her through her major.

“He really asked me seriously what my interests were,’” Shannon said. “That led to me joining a lab where I worked starting my sophomore year. I’ll remember for a long time just how patient he was with me.”

White’s painstaking, caring attention to detail caught the attention of her parents, and ultimately was the reason they made a $1 million gift to the neuroscience program in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience. Mike and Jennifer Shannon established a $500,000 expendable fund and a $500,000 endowed fund, both intended to support graduate and undergraduate neuroscience research, lab renovations and equipment, and faculty. Further, to honor White’s work with Sara Rose, Mike and Jennifer named both funds after White, an associate professor in neurology who directs undergraduate studies in Psychology & Neuroscience.

“The majority of our giving has been to our children’s schools,” Mike says. “We’ve been lucky enough at those schools that they’ve had terrific experiences. It’s always our goal to give back and help out the next generation.”

The Shannons say that their gift was especially personal for two reasons: Sara Rose’s Duke experience placed her solidly on a track to attend graduate school with a plan to apply for medical school, and the research their funds will enable can address issues their family cares about.

“I have a father who passed with dementia,” Jennifer says, “so it’s particularly close to my heart that Sara Rose would be pursuing neuroscience. Mike has a sister who had brain cancer. It’s meaningful to us.”

As Sara Rose was preparing to declare her major during the 2020-21 school year, labs were not accepting as many undergraduates for research in the wake of the pandemic. She was struggling to find opportunities and guidance.

In her first Zoom meeting with White, he was able to narrow down her neuroscience interests find three faculty members whose labs would be a good fit for her, and helped her craft emails to those professors. One of those labs was the Imagination and Modal Cognition Lab run by Felipe De Brigard, where Sara Rose worked through the rest of her time at Duke.

White is deferential when asked about the funds and the praise the Shannon family has for him. He says their gift is more a reflection of the neuroscience faculty as a whole, particularly its culture of caring for students as people and a shared desire to help mold new cohorts of neuroscientists.

“We just did our best to continue to track and continue to see how I could be helpful to her as her journey continued through the major,” White says of his work with Sara Rose. “It’s just been a delight to get to know her and to have a small part to play in her story. And the more I got to know her, the more substance I saw she was really bringing — and not just substance, but intentionality.”

Sara Rose has lived her life intentionally, deeply involved in extracurricular activities. She became immersed in neuroscience in high school when she worked in two labs at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. A trip to Poland with the Gap Medics program kindled her passion for medicine—she shadowed a pediatric neurosurgeon for three weeks, even looking over his shoulder in the operating room.

That transformative experience confirmed her interest in neuroscience and led her to Duke. As she considered the next step in her academic path, Sara Rose talked to White about a master’s program in narrative medicine at Columbia University. White connected her with people who had completed the program, read her application, and staged a mock interview with her. It was a great fit for Sara Rose, who loves writing and actually authored a chapter in a medical textbook while in high school.

“When Sara Rose expressed that interest, I thought, ‘Oh, great, I can really help you out here,’” White says. “I think she's really going to flourish there and will take from that a really unique perspective about the importance of humanism in medicine, the importance of listening well and understanding the story that her patients will share with her.”

While Sara Rose pursues her master’s and applies to medical school, White will use her family’s gift strategically to make a difference right away. Duke is in need of neuroscience lab space and programs, so White, engaged colleagues, and a graduate student are building hands-on learning modules that will be ready for the fall semester. Longer-term, he and colleagues plan to create more lab-based courses and invest in the equipment needed for those.

Mike and Jennifer are thrilled that their gift will be used right away, and that an excellent experience for Duke neuroscience majors will get even better. Giving with gratitude is the way they have structured their philanthropy. They feel it’s an obligation, considering their success as a family.

“The resources that we have, Mike and I didn’t grow up with,” Jennifer says. “Now we’re able to give back, and it’s our children who are leading us.”