May 7, 2004

Heartfelt tribute honors Lee Limbird’s 25 years of service

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Lee E. Limbird, Ph.D., reacts to the unveiling of a framed self portrait during a celebration in her honor last week. A more formal portrait has been commissioned. Photo by Dana Johnson

Heartfelt tribute honors Lee Limbird’s 25 years of service

Joel G. Hardman, Ph.D., left, and Heidi E. Hamm, Ph.D., right, former and current chairs of Pharmacology, pose with Lee E. Limbird, Ph.D., who served as pharmacology chair from 1991 to 1998. Limbird's former trainees gave her a big gold star during the afternoon tribute. Photo by Dana Johnson

Joel G. Hardman, Ph.D., left, and Heidi E. Hamm, Ph.D., right, former and current chairs of Pharmacology, pose with Lee E. Limbird, Ph.D., who served as pharmacology chair from 1991 to 1998. Limbird's former trainees gave her a big gold star during the afternoon tribute. Photo by Dana Johnson

The stars came out in a blue sky to honor Lee E. Limbird, Ph.D., last Friday.

The “stars” were a constellation of colleagues, former students and friends from around the country who celebrated Limbird’s 25 years of contributions to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, its Pharmacology department and its research enterprise.

“We would not be where we are today, we would not be as productive, if it were not for Lee Limbird,” said Harry R. Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs, during an afternoon tribute in Langford Auditorium.

The afternoon included a video of Limbird’s life prepared by Alfred L. George Jr., M.D., director of the division of Genetic Medicine.

Titled “Blue Sky,” the video reflected her capacity to dream big. “She really brought out the best in all of us,” said Elaine Sanders-Bush, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute.

Limbird relinquished her role as the medical center’s first associate vice chancellor for Research at the end of December, and will turn over the reins of her laboratory to colleagues this summer. She has begun to serve as an advisor to Meharry Medical College and to the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance, and she is looking for other challenges.

“I have yet another life to live,” she said.

During the afternoon tribute, Jacobson announced the establishment of the Lee Limbird Chair in Pharmacology. A group of her former graduate students and post-doctoral fellows also unveiled the Limbird Alumni Dissertation Enhancement Grant to which they contributed $25,000. The funds will enable future graduate students to attend national research meetings and otherwise enhance their educational experience.

Chancellor Gordon Gee credited Limbird with tearing down the arbitrary boundaries between the medical center and the rest of the university, and strengthening collaboration through such entities as the recently opened Medical Research Building III, which is shared by biology and biomedical faculty.

“Lee probably did more to diminish the role of the ‘Berlin Wall’ at Vanderbilt and create a sense of community and a sense of commitment to quality than any person that I know,” Gee said.

“She has truly expanded the scientific enterprise from one end of the campus to another,” added John A. Oates, M.D., Thomas F. Frist Sr. Professor of Medicine and professor of Pharmacology. “Lee, your vision has truly floated all of our scientific boats, and we love you for it.”

A graduate of The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, Limbird earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina, and taught at Duke University before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 1979.

Joel Hardman, Ph.D., former chair of Pharmacology, said he recruited Limbird “because of her promise as an outstanding researcher, and she has not disappointed.”

Several years later, to avoid losing her to another university, Hardman offered to step down as chair if she would be asked to succeed him. In an interview videotaped in his home, Roscoe R. “Ike” Robinson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs emeritus, said he agreed without hesitation.

Her promotion in 1991 culminated from the “shortest search for a chair in the history of Vanderbilt,” Robinson recalled. “I love Lee Limbird dearly,” he said. “She’s a great friend. I am on her team.”

Under Limbird’s guidance, the department grew to become one of the top pharmacology departments in the country in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, the quality of its graduate training and the citation impact of its research publications.

Limbird also grew as a researcher, focusing on alpha(2)-adrenergic receptors, which are involved in diverse physiological effects. Among her accomplishments: serving as co-editor of Goodman and Gilman’s Pharmacological Basis for Therapeutics, and authoring a widely used textbook on cell surface receptors.

“She has never been limited by technology. She’s fearless in going where the science leads her,” said Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., chair of Pharmacology. That doesn’t mean she’s dry or humorless. On the contrary, noted Hamm: “Lee knows how to make science fun.”

In 1998, following a faculty-driven strategic planning process designed to enhance the medical center’s research effort, Limbird was appointed associate vice chancellor for Research. Alastair J.J. Wood, M.D., who with Mark A. Magnuson, M.D., was named assistant vice chancellor for Research, noted that she developed a “prodigious knowledge” of the research conducted by her faculty members, and helped them obtain the resources they needed.

“She’s never lost the ability to leave the people she talks to with renewed enthusiasm for their science,” Wood said. It’s more than cheerleading —“she gets her sleeves rolled up and her hands dirty,” he added.

“Lee’s central focus was on the need to protect faculty time for research and discovery,” said Dennis Hall, Ph.D., associate provost for Research and Graduate Education. “I admire her for that.”

One of her many talents was attracting new faculty to Vanderbilt. “She is the ‘George Steinbrenner’ of recruiting,” said Jacobson, rattling off the names of several scientists who came to Vanderbilt as a result of Limbird’s efforts.

Randy Blakely, Ph.D., director of the Center for Molecular Neuroscience, said he was impressed by Limbird’s “dazzling mind” when he met her while teaching at Emory University. “I came to Vanderbilt directly as a result of her efforts,” he said.

One of Limbird’s most lasting legacies may be her influence on women in science and medicine. Her efforts were one of the reasons that last year’s entering class of medical students for the first time included more women than men, said Steven G. Gabbe, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine.

“Our applicants saw … that we had a very dynamic group of women leaders who were making an important difference in the school,” Gabbe said. “At the very top of that list was Lee Limbird.”

“I’ve had an extremely fortunate life,” Limbird said. “I don’t know why I’m so lucky. All of you have given me a wonderful 25 years. I’m very grateful.”