Research Journal Feature: Vance Lemmon, Ph.D.

Starting out as a California surfer in San Diego, he trekked cross-country to Atlanta to earn his Ph.D. His Ph.D. dissertation work investigated degeneration of the visual system. Even today, the visual system is an excellent model for evaluating axon regeneration to inform spinal cord injury. From there he took a turn to the Mid-West and became a post-doctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis in the late ‘70’s. The neuroscience community at Wash U at that time was legendary, including our own Mary and Richard Bunge and former Provost Luis Glaser. His studies there led him toward the direction of neural cell migration and the molecules that enable those cells to move. Over the next few years, and junior faculty positions, he studied some key adhesion molecules that were involved in stimulating axon growth. Adhesion molecules are proteins that are on the surface of cells, in this case nerve cells, that bind to other cells or other tissue in the local environment and helps them “stick” together or move along a surface. In 1988 he made a short hop to Cleveland that turned into about a 15 year stay. While at Case Western Reserve University, he delved deep into understanding how axon growth cones move and the molecules involved in directing that movement, both during normal development of the nervous system and after disease. Finally, in 2003, he took a 180° turn and headed due south to Miami to focus on axon regeneration after spinal cord injury (SCI). Now he is the Walter G. Ross Distinguished Chair in Developmental Neuroscience at the University of Miami, is a Professor in the department of Neurological Surgery, and a senior faculty member of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

In Miami, he merged his lab with Dr. John Bixby, which became known as “The LemBix Lab”. Understanding that axon regeneration in the brain and spinal cord is incredibly complex and certainly involves more than one molecule, they decided to take advantage of advancing technology and began setting up their high content screening lab, which we’ve written about over the years, to enable them to screen thousands and thousands of compounds and genes to evaluate their involvement in axon regeneration. That creates a lot of data! As a result Dr. Lemmon has become very involved in computational biology and informatics and is the Program Director for Computational Biology here at the university. Whether one experiment creates a little data or a lot of data, it all needs to be interpretable so that the field can move forward. In 2012, Dr. Lemmon led an endeavor with a large team of international scientist to create a standardized way to report data from animal SCI experiments. It’s called MIASCI – Minimum Information About a Spinal Cord Injury experiment – and as more people start to use it we should be able to start to overcome the problem of reproducibility that plagues our field as well as all of biomedical science.

He’s more than just a Brainiac though! Along with his wife, Sandy Lemmon, Ph.D. (Professor of Pharmacology and Director of the UM M.D./ Ph.D. program), he is an avid cyclist; he rock climbs with his son; he’s a website guru; and he’s in to the Miami art scene. We at the Miami Project are quite happy his journey led him here and look forward to his future and reaping the benefits of his extensive kmowledge.