Blue Devil of the Week: Connecting Duke’s ‘Brainiacs’

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta leads the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta stands in front of a mural of brains in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences office. Photos by Jonathan Black.
Nicole Schramm-Sapyta stands in front of a mural of brains in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences office. Photos by Jonathan Black.

Name: Nicole Schramm-Sapyta

Title: Chief Operating Officer and Assistant Professor of the Practice for the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences 

Years at Duke: 15 

What she does at Duke: Nicole Schramm-Sapyta brings the brain sciences together at Duke. 

Her office is a revolving door of faculty, staff and students studying the brain across the University and Health System. The face-to-face meetings, sometimes a dozen a week, are a necessity for Schramm-Sapyta to advance research opportunities through the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). 

“DIBS exists to create amazing combinations of people across the disciplines who share the same goal,” Schramm-Sapyta said. “I need to be able to say ‘Oh, you’re interested in this topic? Let me introduce you to this person.’” 

A recent success was pairing two clinicians from the Duke Emergency Department with addiction treatment experts and partners at the Durham County Health Department to help reduce opioid deaths and get patients into addiction treatment.

Schramm-Sapyta’s own research has focused on drug use, addiction, and neurobiological bases of vulnerability. She’s authored or co-authored five publications in the past three years on topics such as heroin mortality in North Carolina, designing courses for clinicians on substance use disorders and best practices for distributing Naloxone, a drug that treats opioid overdoses.  

She also leads Bass Connections teams and Data + Teams programs and teaches courses, including neuroscience offerings “Drugs and the Law” and “Reward and Addiction.”  Durham's Crisis Intervention Team named Schramm-Sapyta the "Volunteer of the Year" in 2018. 

“I’m very interested in learning how we, as a society, can spend our resources wisely to keep our most vulnerable citizens safe,” she said. “I like problems that aren’t easy to solve.” 

What she loves about Duke: Schramm-Sapyta loves that Duke values continual learning. She audited “Public Policy 803: Policy Analysis” in the Sanford School of Public Policy in 2015. She attended the course each week, completed assignments and took exams without receiving a final grade. 

Practically, the course taught her how to write a policy brief and do a cost-benefit analysis. More importantly, the course taught her the pressures that policy-makers face, allowing her to present scientific facts to them in a more useful way.  

“I needed to learn how to translate my scientific knowledge into a societal impact,” Schramm-Sapyta said. “Duke gave me the opportunity to explore and follow my nose intellectually. This is what education is all about!”

Memorable day at work: DIBS is a place that makes it easy for brain scientists to come together and share their ideas, which requires a lot of logistical planning.  In order to promote teamwork in science, DIBS staff exemplify a team-oriented approach.  

DIBS recently hosted a day-long workshop on “How Technology is Transforming the Science of Mental Health.”  The staff planned for months, working with the DIBS Faculty Governance Committee and Chair Geraldine Dawson, to arrange the speakers, poster session, catering and small and large-group meetings and meals.  

“When all was said and done, members of our community that I hadn’t met before were telling me how much they enjoyed the day, how much they had learned and how they were brainstorming new ways to collaborate,” Schramm-Sapyta said. “This is why we’re here."

Special object in her office: Hanging on the wall in Schramm-Sapyta’s office is a drawing with two people holding hands and the quote:  

Schramm-Sapyta purchased the painting by Brian Andreas when she became Chief Operating Officer of DIBS.“In those days, we finally chose to walk like giants and hold the world in arms grown strong with love and there may be many things we forget in the days to come, but this will not be one of them.” 

Schramm-Sapyta purchased the painting by Brian Andreas when she moved from being a faculty member in DIBS to being its Chief Operating Officer in 2017. 

“I have a leadership role in a place that exists to bring people together to do important work,” she said. “So this is the philosophy I try to live by.” 

Best advice received: Schramm-Sapyta’s adviser in graduate school told her to “trust the seasons of your life.” 

“This quote reminds me that I can’t do everything all at once, but that there will be a time in life for all the things that matter,” Schramm-Sapyta said.

First job: Schramm-Sapyta worked as a park attendant at Bond Park in Cary the summer before graduate school. She drove a pick-up truck, emptied trash cans, cleared pathways with a leaf blower and rented out paddleboats to guests. 

“I have spent my entire life in school, so for a brief summer, it was fun to do something different,” she said. “I might do it again in retirement.” 

Something most people don’t know about her: Schramm-Sapyta plays pick-up basketball each week at the Downtown Durham YMCA. Sometimes that comes with hazards, like when she got a black eye from racing an opponent to a loose ball. 

“Playing basketball forces you to be in the moment and react,” she said. “I tend to think too much, so I enjoy getting away from that.” 

Is there a colleague at Duke who has an intriguing job or goes above and beyond to make a difference? Nominate that person for Blue Devil of the Week.