Rylie Hightower calls herself an “ideas gal,” and her ideas certainly deserve attention. The University of Alabama at Birmingham neuroscience graduate student recently received a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund her research on Duchenne muscular dystrophy. She’s also the founder of The Lumbar, a bar that mixes food, drinks and scientific feats to help customers spark great ideas of their own. We’re delighted to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Rylie Hightower.

Rylie Hightower

Rylie Hightower is a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the founder of The Lumbar. She’s also our newest FACE of Birmingham!

Congratulations on your grant! Tell us more about your research.

I’m looking for a small piece of RNA called a microRNA, and I’m trying to understand how this microRNA can influence how rapidly Duchenne muscular dystrophy progresses. This is a fatal disease that primarily affects boys. It results in muscle breakdown over time, so typically in their teenage years, boys will be non-ambulatory. They will end up in wheelchairs because the muscle breakdown is really severe. It is prematurely terminal. So, typically, these boys will suffer from respiratory or cardiac arrest between the ages of 20 and 35. It is a very degenerative disease, and the symptoms are very severe because of that muscle breakdown. All of your biological systems in your body rely on muscle. I’m trying to understand how to stop the progression, how to interfere with how quickly the muscle breakdown happens.

What inspired you to start The Lumbar?

When I started school at UAB in the fall of 2015, I had a nursing degree and everybody around me had degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and genetics. They already knew a lot of the class material we were going over. The first few classes were things that I had never taken before, and I failed all of my classes the first semester. I also didn’t know anybody. I had moved here from New Mexico.

I learned very quickly I was going to need some help. I picked out all the smartest students in the class, and I offered a trade of beer for help with school. That’s how I ended up making a bunch of my friends, and that’s how I ended up passing class. I really liked being able to sit around in an informal environment and talk about these really complex principles. A couple of beers in, and the ideas are flying. I’ve always been the ideas gal, and what better way to be able to casually discuss those ideas than with a friend over a beer or a cocktail?

I wanted somewhere in town where I could go and set up my laptop, work and drink beer, and not feel funky. When you don’t have a place to dream, you build one, and that was the idea behind The Lumbar — a place to have those big collaborative dreaming conversations.

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Rylie in her white lab coat

When Rylie was struggling in her classes at UAB, she traded her fellow classmates beer for help with homework. It was these conversations over drinks that inspired her to start The Lumbar.

How do you balance school, research and the bar?

It’s about knowing what needs to be done and prioritizing what is most important at that time and having a solid team of people to help you execute those things. There are times I can’t be at the bar. There are times when my lab work is going to take precedent, so I do have to be able to rely on the team at the bar to do what needs to be done. They are “ride or die,” and we all love each other. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to move things forward. That’s been the biggest help in juggling.

What else has helped you along the way?

You have to have thick skin to do any of these things. With my dissertation, I have to give presentations to senior faculty, and their job is to rip my presentation apart because my job is to defend my work. But that’s hard. With the bar, there were so many people who said, “You want to open a bar? That will never happen.” But you do your best to filter out the negative that other people bring to you and push forward with the positive. Stay true to what your mission is.

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What are some of your favorite things to do in Birmingham?

Once the plan for the bar started unfolding, that’s pretty much where my attention was drawn, but I do love beer. So, I spent a fair amount of time at all of the local breweries. That’s where I did a lot of my homework and where I met a lot of my friends. I used to go to Cahaba Brewing a lot. I liked to go to Good People before a Baron’s game. I like a lot of fruit-infused beers and fruity beers, so TrimTab was always a big hit for me because they do a lot of that. I’m big into running and hiking, so I love going down to the Lakeshore Trail and Red Mountain Park. And I love Ruffner Mountain.

Rylie Hightower posing with a cocktail

Rylie credits her team at The Lumbar for helping her juggle her time between school, research and the bar: “They are ‘ride or die,’ and we all love each other. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to move things forward. That’s been the biggest help in juggling.”

What’s the best advice you have to give?

You can’t please everybody, and if you know what you’re doing, you have to just forge ahead to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish.

Name three things you can’t live without.

Excel spreadsheets, tequila, and green chile.

All photography by Tyler Furgerson.

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