New leader takes helm at UF's neuroscience department

Lucia Notterpek, Ph.D., has been appointed chair of the department of neuroscience at the University of Florida College of Medicine, joining the growing ranks of women who lead basic science departments at major university medical centers.

Lucia Notterpek, Ph.D.

Lucia Notterpek, Ph.D. Photo by Sarah Kiewel

A UF neuroscientist since 1999, Notterpek has established a track record of scientific discoveries that may impact future therapies for brain diseases, especially those involving the peripheral nervous system — the vast communications network that transmits information from the brain and spinal cord to every other part of the body.

“Dr. Notterpek brings experience and passion to lead the department of neuroscience ahead in its mission to hasten the discovery of treatments and cures for chronic and acute disorders of the nervous system,” said Dr. Michael L. Good, interim dean of the UF College of Medicine. “She plans to continue to build the department’s relationships with UF’s McKnight Brain Institute and the clinical departments at the College of Medicine, and to create synergies for research endeavors, faculty recruitment, grant applications and breakthrough discoveries.”

Among Notterpek’s first order of business will be to bring three assistant professors aboard to complement faculty members with established expertise in aging brain plasticity, gene therapy, neurodegenerative diseases and acute conditions of the nervous system, such as stroke and traumatic injury. Currently the department has 17 faculty members at the Gainesville campus and four at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Biomedicine near St. Augustine.

“Because of the seniority and experience within the department, it is an ideal environment for junior faculty in terms of mentoring and exposure to established research programs,” Notterpek said. “We have an opportunity to grow the department while helping young scientists establish their careers.”

Notterpek appreciates the value of working alongside established scientists. She learned about research and administrative techniques as a postdoctoral associate in the lab of National Academy of Sciences member Eric Shooter, Ph.D., who was the founding chairman of the department of neurobiology at the Stanford School of Medicine.

At the time, Shooter was doing seminal work in the structure and mechanisms of neurotrophins, the proteins that keep nerve cells alive.

“I noticed when she first came into lab, she displayed all the qualities of a future leader,” said Shooter, who is also a fellow of the Royal Society of London. “She will have great success in administration, because people will recognize that she has the will to get things done, and the personality to get them done wisely. She is also an excellent and original scientist, and she has proven that time and again.”

It was in Shooter’s Stanford lab where Notterpek refined her interest in group of diseases known as demyelinating peripheral neuropathies, so called because they are diseases that involve the destruction of the myelin sheath, which is a kind of insulation that protects nerve tissue.

Shooter had already discovered in mice a certain gene that when mutated produced a protein that destroyed the protective covering.

Notterpek was the first scientist to show that the disease-linked forms of the protein accumulated and clumped together within the cells that form the insulating sheath, causing these cells to pull back from the nerve.

The finding shed light on the fundamental nature of a disease and paved the way for Notterpek and a host of other scientists who are now investigating how to manage these pathological proteins and develop clinical therapies.

“Good science takes curiosity and a lot of persistence, and she has those qualities,” Shooter said. “A department chair has to make practical judgments and persuade people that it is in their best interest to carry them out. Dr. Notterpek is also able to do that.”

As the fourth chair of the neuroscience department since its beginning at UF in 1977, Notterpek will be a role model for women in neuroscience, according to Dennis Steindler, Ph.D., executive director of UF’s Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute.

“Dr. Notterpek is one of the best developmental neurobiologists in the world,” Steindler said. “In addition to the fact that she is a spectacular scientist, she is among a minority of women chairing basic science departments at a major research university. This serves as more acknowledgment that women in neuroscience are as good as men, and I expect that as we see progress, there will be even more opportunities for gifted researchers and leaders like Dr. Notterpek.”

In 2005, the American Society for Neurochemistry selected Notterpek as the recipient of the Jordi-Folch Pi Award for Outstanding Contribution to Neuroscience Research. She serves on national and international study sections and advisory boards of governmental and private agencies. At UF, she has received awards for excellence in mentoring and teaching, and research presentations. Her studies have been continuously supported by extramural funding from the NIH and the National Muscular Dystrophy Association, and have been published in high-impact journals.

She received her bachelor’s degree in anatomy-physiology from the University of California at Berkeley and her doctoral degree in neuroscience at the University of California at Los Angeles. She completed postdoctoral training at Stanford before coming to UF in 1999.

As for additional goals, Notterpek would like to add scientists with medical degrees to the neuroscience faculty, as well as strengthen the department’s ties with clinical programs. Historically, the neuroscience department has been closely connected with programs at the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Notterpek believes that relationship must continue to be nurtured, especially in areas involving acute neurological injuries and stroke.