MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When the White House announced a little more than a year ago that it was launching the equivalent of the Human Genome Project for the brain, West Virginia University neuroscientist George Spirou, Ph.D., knew what this announcement meant.
For years, he’d been molding WVU’s Centers for Neuroscience—a vast network of 50 labs across the Morgantown campus—to comprehensively map and study the brain. By the time President Barack Obama made the human brain a national research priority with $100 million in BRAIN Initiative funding, Dr. Spirou was leading only one of about ten labs in the world that were using large-scale 3-D reconstructions of neurons to more fully understand what’s going on in the center of the self.
“When you sit back in your chair and you think about it,” Spirou said, “every neuroscientist is throughout their career alternately depressed and energized by the sheer magnitude of this challenge. What better time and place to do it than when the entire field is in a transformation, and with key investments in the right people we can transform ourselves at the same time.”
Spirou was honored by the University this week for his pioneering work in neuroscience research by being named to an endowed chair – the John W. and Jeannette S. Straton Research Chair in Neurosciences.
“People who work in neurosciences around the country – and around the world – know what’s happening at WVU, and they are excited by it,” Clay Marsh, M.D., WVU Health Sciences Vice President and Executive Dean, said. “In large part, our reputation as a research hub is due to Dr. Spirou and the team of scientists he has brought together to work on brain science. I am very proud that he is a Mountaineer.”
Dr. Spirou became a neuroscientist to pursue his interest in brain mechanisms for perception and learning. He studied as an undergraduate student at Denison University majoring in physics and philosophy and completed doctoral work in neuroscience at the University of Florida and a fellowship in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied the neural encoding of sound and the structure of neural circuits.
Since his arrival at WVU, he has combined managing his own laboratory research program with building the research infrastructure and scope of neuroscience research at the University. The key ingredient in this latter process has been recruiting strong junior faculty, establishing a mentoring program to guide them to success as independent investigators and participating as primary mentor for many of them.
Under his leadership the Centers for Neuroscience has grown to include the Sensory Neuroscience Research Center, the WVU Stroke Center, the new Addiction Medicine research group, and the Cognitive Neuroscience research group.
Among Dr. Spirou’s honors are selection to the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars and as an inaugural member of the National Institutes for Health Center for Scientific Review College of Reviewers. He has served on numerous NIH review panels, including frequent stints as committee chair.
When creating endowed chairs, which is an irrevocable commitment, the University ensures that the area of study is of long-term interest and a benefit to the state and its citizens. The chair honors both the named holder of the chair and also serves as an enduring tribute to the donors who establish it.
Endowed chairs are crucial for recruiting and retaining the highest-quality faculty and for honoring faculty that have made a significant impact. Building a strong base of faculty talent enriches the academic environment, which attracts and inspires motivated students. The John W. and Jeannette S. Straton Research Chair in Neurosciences was funded with a $1.2 million gift.
Photo Caption: Colleagues surround George Spirou, Ph.D., during the recent investiture ceremony naming him as chair. L-R: WVU Health Sciences Vice President and Executive Dean Clay Marsh, M.D.; WVU President E. Gordon Gee; George Spirou, Ph.D.; and, Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery Chair Hassan Ramadan, M.D.