Justin Morrison: Penn’s impact player on the field and in the lab

Matt Leon
December 07, 2018 - 1:58 pm

Matt Leon/KYW Newsradio


PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- Justin Morrison just wrapped up his senior season as a member of the University of Pennsylvania football team.

Morrison made an impact on the field during his time at Penn playing defense, offense and special teams but it was by no means his sole focus. Morrison, a native of Swedesboro, New Jersey, is getting ready to graduate in the spring from the Biological Basis of Behavior Program and eventually head to medical school with the hopes of one day maybe becoming a surgeon.

This past summer though, his focus was the research side of medicine as he took part in a fellowship at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center working on a study dealing with traumatic brain injuries.

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"I realized that I've always been fascinated with the brain," Morrison said. "How it works, how it's different in different people, how it controls behavior, personality, action, everything. That kind of led to my aspirations in doing research in neuroscience, major in neuroscience, just developing my knowledge on that subject."

The research Morrison was a part of in the summer specifically examined whether the generic form of Viagra could benefit those dealing with traumatic brain injuries.

"Viagra is a vasodilatory (widens the blood vessels to increase blood flow), use it in erectile dysfunction and things like that," Morrison said. "So in the brain, when it comes to traumatic brain injuries, a target of traumatic brain injuries is the vascular system of the brain. So we know the effects of Viagra with erectile dysfunction, so we wanted to see if that had any effect on the vascular system of the brain.

"What happens is you're not getting blood flow," Morrison continued, "which means you're not getting oxygen to certain parts of the brain and this leads to some neurological disorders, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, things like that. So we're hoping that once you increase blood flow, repair those damaged blood vessels, that it can stop it and who knows, maybe reverse it, but we're still working on that."

Morrison says they learned some interesting things.

"We actually did get a lot of positive results and we're really hopeful that eventually this can lead to some breakthrough discovery," he said. "But there's still some phases to go."

Making this an even Ivier Ivy League football story is the fact that the doctor Morrison worked under during this fellowship was a former Penn football player, Dr. Michael Sangobowale, who was an outstanding defensive lineman during his playing career from 2002 to 2004.

"It was really cool working with Dr. Sangobowale knowing that he was a former Penn alumni who was on the field doing the same things I was. I just know being able to relate to each other a lot, talk about football, talk about sports in general, it was just a really cool experience working with him."

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So can the moment of excitement when something comes to fruition in the lab compare to making a big play on the field?

"I think you can compare it because there is always a process to it," he said. "You're not always going to get that big moment where you find that promising result. So when you do, it's a great feeling. On the football field, you always want to make a big play, but you know that all the practice and all the time you put in, when things go well, it's a great feeling."

Of course traumatic brain injuries, specifically concussions, are a hot topic when it comes to football and Morrison is very aware of how his football world and his medical world collide in that way.

"A lot of people don't really get that experience to be on the field one day and the next day study something that's been a very controversial topic in today's world," he said. "Just being a part of it, knowing the things going on in the brain while I'm out there too, was really cool to really have those two different perspectives."

You can follow Matt on Twitter @Mattleon1060.