Legendary Department of Neurosciences chair steps down after 15 years

Lynn LandmesserAn extraordinary era in neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University comes to a close this month. On June 30, Lynn Landmesser, a literal legend in the field, will step down as chair of the department she has led officially for a decade-and-a-half—and inspired for even longer.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Landmesser is renowned for her work in developmental neurosciences—specifically, how spinal motor circuits form. The more researchers can understand about this process, she has explained, the more likely it is that they will find ways to restore lost function.

“Lynn’s contribution to our knowledge of developmental neuroscience is nothing short of remarkable,” said Pamela B. Davis, dean of the School of Medicine and senior vice president for medical affairs. “She has created an exceptional legacy in scientific discovery, national leadership and the development of one of the best departments of its kind in the country.”

Landmesser’s record is all the more impressive for a young woman who originally planned to become a medical technologist when she began her undergraduate studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. But thanks to a series of serendipitous moments—among them a required first-year biology course that convinced her to change her professional plans and, later, a letter unexpectedly forwarded to a prominent neuroscientist—Landmesser launched an academic career distinguished by multiple landmark accomplishments.

Now the Arline H. and Curtis E. Garvin Professor of Medicine and a Distinguished University Professor, Landmesser came to Case Western Reserve in 1993 after postdoctoral studies at the University of Utah and academic appointments at Yale University and the University of Connecticut. She was recruited to Cleveland by the founding chair of the university’s neurosciences department, Story C. Landis, now director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Within three years, Landmesser had become the department’s interim chair.

“I had always been in a biology department,” Landmesser said. “The neurosciences department was my first position in a medical school, so the idea of suddenly becoming a chair in a medical school was intimidating.”

In 1999, she became the permanent chair and set about building upon Landis’ original progress. She admired her colleagues within the department, and sought to forge strong connections with those outside it.

“There are very fine people here,” she noted. “I had excellent communication with chairs from both basic and clinical sciences, and I made friends with many of them. Our department—the entire school—was a wonderfully interactive place.”

Over the years, Landmesser made a significant impact on the department, her colleagues and the many students she taught and mentored.

“Working with Lynn was a truly inspiring experience,” recalled Louise Milner, a radiologist with Cleveland Clinic at Hillcrest Hospital. Landmesser was her PhD thesis advisor in the 1990s. “In my research with her,” Milner said, “she gave me a lot of latitude to follow my intuition when the data was telling us something unexpected. Her ability to distill information to its core meaning is amazing. It’s an example of how science should be approached with an open mind, healthy skepticism and rigorous inquiry.”

Even as she grew the department and mentored students and faculty, Landmesser also continued to build a record as a research pioneer; indeed, she is among the scientists featured in the Society of Neuroscience’s fifth volume of The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography. She has served as president of the Society for Developmental Biology, secretary for the Society of Neuroscience and a member of the governing boards of three separate institutes at the NIH. She has won two consecutive seven-year Jacob Javits Neuroscience Investigator Awards from the NIH, and also sits on the advisory committees for several prestigious organizations, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan.

“For many scientists, enthusiasm can wane as time goes on,” said Richard Zigmond, a professor in the neurosciences department and Landmesser’s friend. “But that’s not Lynn. She’s an experimenter. She still gets a thrill out of doing the actual experiments. Everyone is impressed by that, and it’s very inspiring.”

In recognition of her esteem and achievements, Landmesser served as this year’s keynote speaker at the university’s annual biomedical symposium for graduate students on May 9. One week later, Zigmond and the department of neuroscience hosted a symposium bearing Landmesser’s name and focusing on nerve regeneration and repair.

“I was very touched that they named it in my honor,” Landmesser said. “I really appreciated that and all of the hard work that went into the program.”

Landmesser is well known as a stalwart champion for research in the basic sciences and is eager to have more time in her lab after stepping down as chair.

“On the one hand, it is very exciting to have so many new tools and technologies to use in the labs,” she observed. “But, on the other hand, science is a difficult environment right now. Scientists spend a lot of time writing grants, which isn’t why any of us became scientists. I get so much enjoyment out of doing the actual research and now, without the responsibilities as chair, I’ll have much more time to think and explore.”

Landmesser also has a home in the hills of New Mexico, where she plans to escape more frequently to relax and enjoy the landscape.

But that isn’t to say she is trying to escape Cleveland.

“I grew up on the West Coast and I lived on the East Coast,” she said. “But there’s no place like Cleveland. Everything you want to do is accessible. It’s a vibrant city with lots of culture and now, after all these years, it feels like home.”