Dr. Damien D. Pearse Receives the John M. and Jocelyn H.K. Watkins Distinguished Chair
Damien D. Pearse, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery and The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, has been installed as the John M. and Jocelyn H.K. Watkins Distinguished Chair in Cell Therapies.
“I sincerely thank Jocelyn and John Watkins for this very special honor,” Pearse said. “The critical support that will be generated by the endowed chair will allow my laboratory and The Miami Project to continue to develop new treatments for our spinal cord-injured population.”
Pearse’s research focuses on the investigation of novel strategies to protect and repair the injured spinal cord. He and his research team have been integral to The Miami Project’s success in obtaining FDA approval for its phase I clinical trials involving Schwann cell therapy for both the subacute and chronically injured. While Pearse continues to conduct basic research on spinal cord injury and test strategies to promote functional recovery, he is deeply involved with providing the critical data necessary to move future treatments forward.
The Miami Project at the Miller School of Medicine announced the establishment of The John M. and Jocelyn H.K. Watkins Distinguished Chair in Cell Therapies at a celebratory dinner in January 2013. The chair was established from a gift given by John and Jocelyn Watkins to support a leading researcher in cellular therapies as part of The Miami Project’s mission of finding solutions to spinal cord and brain injuries. John Watkins, who was spinal cord injured, had passed away in January of 2009.
The evening in 2013 included touching tributes to the Watkins from Miami Project founders Barth Green, M.D., Chairman of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and professor of neurological surgery, neurology, orthopaedics and rehabilitation medicine, and Nick and Marc Buoniconti. Also speaking were Donna E. Shalala, University of Miami President at the time, Miller School Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., and Dalton Dietrich, Ph.D., Scientific Director of The Miami Project, Kinetic Concepts Distinguished Chair in Neurosurgery, Senior Associate Dean for Discovery Science and professor of neurological surgery, neurology and cell biology.
“By coincidence or by destiny, this year marked 25 years of our association with The Miami Project and it is an honor to bring to fruition something that John and I talked about for quite a long time,” Jocelyn Watkins said. “My wish and my hope is with the establishment of this endowed chair, it offers another step forward to the day our scientists will succeed in finding that which we have all been looking and praying for, and to be able to announce to the world in the not too distant future that they have found a cure for spinal cord injuries.”
“We are so happy to celebrate the contributions of Jo and her extraordinary husband John in helping us move forward in a continued leadership role in cellular therapies,” Green said. “Their friendship over the past few decades has been instrumental to our success as an organization.”
The Watkins are generous but unlikely philanthropists. John was severely spinal cord injured by a rogue wave while on vacation in St. Lucia in August of 1987. His body was broken but not his brilliant mind or his loving heart, leading him and Jo to many generous acts. They established the Fa Bené Foundation in 1989 to support The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. John was an executive at Colgate Palmolive Company, where he enjoyed a rapid ascent as a corporate officer, eventually becoming Senior Executive Vice President. In his career he developed marketing strategy that still “casts an enormous shadow at Colgate,” according to Ian Cook, the current Colgate Chairman, President and CEO Showing great strength after his accident, John lectured at the University of Miami’s School of Business Administration, enjoying every moment.
In addition to a sharp mind and warm heart, those close to John will also recall his keen sense of humor, often quoting him: “As a quadriplegic, I don’t wear out shoes.” He was also very spiritual and dedicated to his church and family. He was passionate about children, particularly those in harm’s way around the world. On January 3, 2010, The Miami Herald included John in an article about people who made a difference in the community. John was selected from scores of Miami’s movers and shakers.
At John’s memorial service at St. Christopher’s on February 6, 2009, Dr. Barth Green, who treated John after he was flown in from St. Lucia, recalled that “his chances of survival were poor at best.” John lived on for more than 20 years helping those in need in our community and beyond.