Prof. Lisman leaves impact on scientific community


October 27, 2017

On Friday, Oct. 20, Professor John Lisman of the Biology department passed away, surrounded by his family. He was 73 years old.

Prof. Lisman spent many years of his life at Brandeis University. Provost Lisa Lynch fondly refers to him in her email as a “Brandeis lifer.” He first graduated from Brandeis in 1966 with a B.A. in Physics. He received his Ph.D. degree in physiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), then had a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University under the Nobel Laureate George Wald, most known for his research with pigments in the retina. In 1974, Lisman became an assistant professor at Brandeis and was promoted to a full professor role in 1987.

In 2006, Lisman became the Zalman Abraham Kekst Chair in Neuroscience and held it until his passing. He also held the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from 1989 to 1996, and was elected to the rank of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow in 2013, reflecting his scientific accomplishments.

As a professor, his expertise was in molecular mechanisms of memory storage, the role of brain oscillations and the molecular and network basis of schizophrenia, according to the Brandeis faculty guide.

Lisman wrote on his lab’s website, “My laboratory is interested in two questions: the mechanisms of memory and abnormalities that underlie schizophrenia. In both cases, we seek to determine how biochemical, neuronal and network processes can work as a system to perform physiological function.”

Since the 1980’s, Lisman and his lab have been investigating the relationship between long-term memory and calcium/calmodulin dependent protein kinase (CaMKII), and a breakthrough study was published on Sept. 27 in the online edition of “Neuron,” a prestigious peer-reviewed neuroscience journal, as The Brandeis Hoot wrote in its Oct. 13 issue. Published shortly before his passing, the study provided evidence that CaMKII was the key to storing long-term memories in the brain. As Lynch wrote, the study “opens up new avenues of research on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS.”

The Brandeis Science Department received many tributes to Lisman, including a letter from University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Michael Kahana, who wrote, “He had this incredibly-infectious scientific curiosity, and he was always abundantly generous with his time, both with me and my students.” On the department’s announcement of Lisman’s passing, many students, colleagues and alumni left comments remembering as an “intellectual hero” and a “scientific father.”

In the Oct.13 Hoot article, Casey Lamar ’18, who worked with Prof. Lisman in his lab, stated that the professor was a model of perseverance for continuing to work in the lab despite a study from SUNY Downstate Medical Center in 2009 that threatened to prove his theory wrong.

In the Science at Brandeis blog posted on October 21 following Lisman’s death, past students and colleagues shared their condolences through Twitter. User @Kepecslab called Lisman a “bold & original thinker,” while user @DrTepring remembered him as being “patient, brilliant, encouraging & funny.” Lynch wrote in her email that Lisman was “highly accomplished in the classroom” and was able to “connect research with teaching and to connect the classroom with the larger world.”

Lisman was involved with scientific research at Brandeis and was the chair of the Neuroscience Program for a number of years, but he was also a strong supporter of the arts as he served on the faculty advisory committee for the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts, according to Lynch’s email.
Lisman’s memorial service took place at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 26, in the Berlin Chapel and was live streamed in Gerstenzang 121 as well as the Shapiro Science Center first floor library. A reception at the Brandeis Faculty Club took place at 3:30 p.m. and was open to the community.
Lisman’s family has asked that in lieu of flowers, people consider donating to the newly created John Lisman Memorial Scholarship. As stated on the online link to donate to the scholarship, “The Lisman family is establishing and endowing a scholarship fund in his name to support Brandeis undergraduates aspiring to a career in neuroscience.” Currently, the scholarship has raised $4,401 of its target $50,000.
As a “Brandeis lifer,” Lisman’s legacy as a professor will continue to influence aspiring scientists and his groundbreaking research on memory will impact the scientific world for years to come.

Menu Title