John L. Bixby, Ph.D., Appointed Vice Provost for Research

Ask John L. Bixby, Ph.D., what he enjoys most about conducting research, and he answers immediately. The Miller School investigator is enthralled with “being able to discover something that nobody else in the world knows at the time that you know it,” he says. “That’s pretty cool.”

Now Bixby, professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology and neurological surgery and senior associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies, will be able to channel his love of research into a new role with the potential to benefit all UM investigators. He has been appointed vice provost for research, a post in which he will shape UM’s research enterprise.

“It’s a big responsibility, and for me it’s an exciting new challenge,” said Bixby, whose lab has developed methods to test a multitude of genes in hundreds of thousands of neurons and obtain information about cell morphology and gene expression. “Up to now, I’ve been focused on my own research and on issues relating to our biomedical trainees. This new position will allow me to think more about the University as a whole and how to facilitate the research mission in general.”

Bixby’s appointment comes at a time when the Miller School’s reputation as a research powerhouse is skyrocketing. Recently the school ranked No. 39 in the amount of funding awarded by the National Institutes of Health during the 2010-11 federal fiscal year, making it the only Florida institution in the top 50. In 2006, the Miller School was No. 51.

Bixby, who is also on the research faculty of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, will work closely with research deans on all UM campuses to advocate and build support for the institution’s research mission. In addition, he will have oversight of research compliance, research misconduct, conflicts of interest, and the faculty conflict disclosure process.

“John Bixby is a distinguished scientist with an active research program who is intimately familiar with our research enterprise,” said Thomas J. LeBlanc, executive vice president and provost. “He is perfectly placed to advocate for the University’s research mission and to ensure we do everything possible to support our faculty and students in their research endeavors.”

Bixby came to UM in 1988 as an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology. He became a professor in 1997. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego (1980 to 1983) and at the University of California, San Francisco (1983 to 1985). He served as an assistant research physiologist at UCSF and as an associate at its Howard Hughes Medical Institute (1985 to 1988).

Educated at Cornell University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1975, and the California Institute of Technology, where he received a doctoral degree in neurobiology in 1980, Bixby hopes to ramp up UM’s outreach efforts, creating research opportunities for students at local colleges and universities and working with regional and state government offices to develop research-related jobs.

Bixby believes that the wealth of research experience he brings to his new role offers some distinct advantages. “Being able to see the system from an investigator’s perspective will provide insight into how we can make the whole research process easier for our faculty,” he explained.

While his appointment gives him considerably more responsibilities, Bixby remains optimistic that he will be able to continue to secure grants and publish his studies. Collaborating with Vance Lemmon, Ph.D., the Walter G. Ross Distinguished Chair in Developmental Neuroscience and professor of neurological surgery, Bixby has taken a chemical genetics approach that uses small molecules instead of gene manipulation to look at the signaling processes in nerve cells. His work could be used to help understand how axons, or nerve fibers, grow in people with spinal cord injuries or other neurological injuries.

And in a collaboration with Jeffrey Goldberg, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology, and Murray Blackmore, Ph.D., research assistant professor of neurological surgery now at Marquette University, “we’ve found that turning on just one particular gene in a population of brain neurons will allow those neurons to grow their axons in the spinal cord after spinal cord injury,” he said.

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