Dr. Jon T. Willie: Neurology Prize

Science and medicine have always interested Dr. Jon T. Willie.

It's a fascination that seems to run in the family. His father, Dr. Glen Willie, is a nephrologist, and his mother, Patricia Willie, is a registered nurse.

"I've had many mentors in the biomedical sciences, but my father was the first," he said.

Since beginning his studies at UT Southwestern in the summer of 1996, Dr. Willie said his primary interests are basic neuroscience and translational research related to the treatment of neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders.

Dr. Jon T. Willie

He was awarded the 2005 Neurology Prize, which includes a certificate and $250, for his work in the field. "I'm very surprised and honored," he said of his award.

Born in Minnesota, Dr. Willie earned his bachelor's degree in biochemistry from UT Austin in 1995, then began studying medicine and biomedical sciences at UT Southwestern in 1996. In June he graduates after having earned both an M.D. and Ph.D.

His interest in translational research was sparked particularly by the time he spent working in the lab of Dr. Masashi Yanagisawa, an internationally renowned scientist on the UT Southwestern faculty.

"I had the good fortunate to become involved with one of the most exciting stories in neuroscience in the last decade," Dr. Willie said, referring to work done in Dr. Yanagisawa's lab. "I was part of the discovery of the molecular basis for narcolepsy-cataplexy, a neurological disease that causes abnormal regulation of sleep-wake rhythms in people and animals.

"Later on in the hospital wards, taking care of patients with neurological and neurosurgical diseases cemented my devotion to understanding the brain," he said.

For his part, Dr. Yanagisawa said Dr. Willie was one of the top students he has ever supervised.

"Jon has the knack for thoughtful, systematic research," Dr. Yanagisawa said. "He is never satisfied with superficial thinking or answers, and he is able to translate his ideas into experimental tests in a feasible way, and that is fully reflected in his thesis work."

Dr. Yanagisawa added that Dr. Willie also grew into a truly outstanding communicator of scientific ideas both in writing and in presentation. Dr. Willie is the lead author of several published papers stemming from his thesis work with Dr. Yanagisawa.

For his work, Dr. Willie already has received an award from the Sigma Xi and Graduate Student Organization Annual Abstract and Poster Competition in 2002 and the Dean's Discretionary Award from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in 2003. He also has been recognized nationally with honors from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in 2001 and the Society for Neuroscience in 2004.

Personnally, Dr. Willie has more than the Neurology Prize to celebrate. He and his wife, Abigail, have a 10-month-old son, Sam.

He also was recently accepted into the neurosurgery residency program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he plans to complete seven years of training.

"It includes protected research time, so I'll continue to translate basic neuroscience to the medical and surgical treatment of brain disorders," he said. "My ultimate goal is to be a clinical and scientific leader at an academic institution such as UT Southwestern."