Damien D. Pearse, Ph.D. Installed as The John M. and Jocelyn H.K. Watkins Distinguished Chair in Cell Therapies

In February of 2016 Damien D. Pearse, Ph. D., Professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery and The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis was officially installed as The John M. and Jocelyn H.K. Watkins Distinguished Chair in Cell Therapies at a luncheon at the Lois Pope Life Center. The choice of Dr. Pearse was made following a national search to identify the best candidate that would fulfil the endowed chair requirements.

“I sincerely thank Jocelyn and John Watkins for this very special honor. The critical support that will be generated by the endowed chair will allow my laboratory and The Miami Project to continue to develop new treatments for our spinal cord injured population,” said Dr. Pearse.

Dr. Pearse’s research focuses on the investigation of novel strategies to protect and repair the injured spinal cord.  He and his research team have been integral to the success over the past several years of The Miami Project obtaining FDA approval for their phase I clinical trials involving Schwann cell therapy for both the subacute and chronically injured. Thus, while Dr. Pearse continues to conduct basic research on spinal cord injury and test strategies to promote functional recovery, he is deeply involved with providing the critical data necessary to obtain permission to move future treatments forward.

In January 2013 The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the Miller School of Medicine announced the establishment of The John M. and Jocelyn H.K. Watkins Distinguished Chair in Cell Therapies at a celebratory dinner at The Miami Project. The Chair was established from a gift given by John and Jocelyn Watkins to support a leading researcher in cellular therapies as part of The Miami Project’s mission of finding solutions to the problems of spinal cord and brain injuries. John Watkins was spinal cord injured and unfortunately passed away in January of 2009.

The evening in 2013 included touching tributes to John and Jocelyn from Miami Project founders Dr. Barth Green, Chairman, The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Professor, Departments of Neurological Surgery, Neurology, Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation Medicine, and Nick and Marc Buoniconti.  Donna Shalala, University of Miami President at that time, Dean of the Miller School of Medicine Dr. Pascal Goldschmidt, and Dalton Dietrich, Ph.D., Scientific Director, The Miami Project, Kinetic Concepts Distinguished Chair in Neurosurgery, Senior Associate Dean for Discovery Science and Professor, Neurological Surgery, Neurology and Cell Biology, also shared some moving words about the Watkins during the inspirational evening.

“By coincidence or by destiny, this year marked the 25 years of our association with The Miami Project and it is an honor to bring to fruition something that John and I talked about for quite a long time.  My wish and my hope is with the establishment of this endowed chair, it offers another step forward to the day our scientists will succeed in finding that which we have all been looking and praying for, and to be able to announce to the world in the not too distant future that they have found a cure for spinal cord injuries,” said Jocelyn Watkins during the dinner in 2013.

“We are so happy to celebrate the contributions of Jo and her extraordinary husband John in helping us move forward in a continued leadership role in cellular therapies.  Their friendship over the past few decades has been instrumental in our success as an organization,” added Dr. Green.

Jocelyn Watkins and her late husband John are generous but unlikely philanthropists. John was severely spinal cord injured, becoming a quadriplegic by a rogue wave while on vacation in St. Lucia in August of 1987.  His body was broken but not his brilliant mind or his loving heart, leading he and Jo to many generous acts.  They established the Fa Bené Foundation, originally established in 1989 to support The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and other charities that touched their hearts.  John was an executive at Colgate Palmolive Company where he enjoyed a rapid ascent as a corporate officer and Senior Executive Vice President.  In his career he developed marketing strategy, which according to Ian Cook, the present Colgate Chairman, President and CEO, that even today, “casts an enormous shadow at Colgate.”  Showing great strength after his accident, John used his business know-how to lecture at the University of Miami’s School of Business and he enjoyed every moment.

In addition to a sharp mind and warm heart, those close to John will also recall his keen sense of humor, often quoting, “As a quadriplegic, I don’t wear out shoes.”  He was also very spiritual and dedicated to his Church and family.  He was passionate about children, particularly those in harm’s way around the world.  On January 3, 2010, The Miami Herald included John in an article about people who made a difference in the community. John was selected from scores of Miami’s movers and shakers.  At John’s memorial service at St. Christopher’s on February 6, 2009, Dr. Barth Green, who treated John after he was life-flighted in from St. Lucia, recalled that “his chances of survival were poor at best.”  John lived on for over 20 years helping those in need in our community and beyond.