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11.29.2017

Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge, Who Made Major Contributions to The Miami Project, Retires

In 1989, Mary Bartlett Bunge, Ph.D., and her late husband, Richard P. Bunge, M.D., two of the world’s most respected researchers in the field of neurobiology, moved their laboratory from Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine to the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The occasion for the move was Richard becoming the scientific director of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which was then just four years old.

The larger story is that when they moved, six families moved with them. The Bunges had built such a close-knit scientific “family” in St. Louis that several colleagues who worked in their laboratory joined the trek to South Florida.

Richard died in 1996, but Bunge continued for more than two decades to build on the research foundation they had laid together, earning numerous accolades for the importance of her own work. She also kept up her spirited pursuit of interests outside of science that added an uncommon dimension to the Bunge laboratory for the many researchers who had the good fortune to work there.

So when Bunge finally decided to retire and a day was held in her honor on November 17, the event attracted dozens of colleagues and current and former members of the Bunge laboratory “family.” Some had traveled far to attend, and each contributed in their own way to a day that mixed heady scientific discussion with humorous recollections of a laboratory environment that somehow managed to complement biomedical discovery with quilting, tea parties, music, poetry — even a hot tub.

Bunge retires as the Christine E. Lynn Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience and professor of cell biology, neurological surgery and neurology.

The research focus of most of Bunge’s career has been the Schwann cell, which she and Richard determined to be a key to helping repair damaged spinal cords. Her work with Schwann cells has led to numerous discoveries, and was central to The Miami Project’s Phase 1 clinical trial that earlier this year proved the safety of transplanting Schwann cells of recently paralyzed patients into the site of their injury. This work will serve as a foundation for future cell replacement and regeneration trials at The Miami Project. Bunge’s research is considered so valuable that the National Institutes of Health has renewed her individual research grant for 44 years — an almost unmatched record of achievement.

An internationally recognized authority on central nervous system regeneration, Bunge has received many prestigious honors during her career, including the 1996 Wakeman Award for her seminal contributions to the understanding of spinal cord injury repair and the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from 1998-2005 from the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). In addition to serving on the NINDS council, she served on the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Spinal Cord Injury from 2003-2005, and received an honorary doctoral degree in Humane Science from her undergraduate alma mater, Simmons College, in 2006. The greatest honor of her career came in 2013, when she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine.

At the end of the day, when colleagues and friends and family members had said their piece, Bunge rose to speak. Much of what she said honored those who had influenced her life and encouraged her to mentor others.

“I was the only child raised by very creative and artistic parents,” she said. “My father was a violinist and my mother an interior decorator. I grew up in a very beautiful and old small town environment. In the back yard were woods to be investigated, and in the front a small stream with frogs and tadpoles that sparked an early interest in biology. My four girlhood heroines were Olympic gold medalist Sonja Henie, who brought ballet to figure skating, Ana Pavlova, one of the most famous ballerinas of all time, Marie Curie, who won not one but two Nobel prizes, and Eleanor Roosevelt. It was a mix of art and science and women who were making a difference.”

But although the day had been set aside to honor Bunge as another woman who had made a difference, in the end she insisted on sharing the credit.

“I have been successful because of the very talented people who have worked in the lab,” she said. “They’re the ones who have really made the difference.”

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