The “Decade of the Brain” — a 1990s presidential initiative to raise public awareness for brain research — sparked a lifelong interest in neurology for Brian Berman, M.D. When he started medical school at the University of Colorado in 2000, he requested to work with a neurologist as part of his longitudinal curriculum program, and was serendipitously placed with a movement disorders specialist.
“I haven’t looked back since,” Berman says.
Meanwhile, in Richmond, Virginia, during the early 2000s, a patient-driven effort to establish a specialty center for Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders at VCU was underway. The patient community group Movers and Shakers led more than a decade of fundraising and advocacy for the initiative.
Group cofounder Margaret Bemiss and her husband Fitzgerald “Gerry” Bemiss, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the late 1980s, became deeply invested in contributing to the advancement of research and treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. In 2007, the couple established the Bemiss Endowed Chair. This philanthropic investment, later augmented by memorial and estate gifts following the Bemisses’ deaths, served as the foundation for the VCU Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center, which opened in 2011.
The role that patient advocacy played in making the PMDC a reality shaped a community-centric culture for the center. “The close relationship with our community is a defining strength of VCU,” says Department of Neurology Chair Gordon Smith, M.D., who holds the Wright Distinguished Chair in Clinical and Translational Research. “When the time came to recruit a new leader for the PMDC, it was paramount that we find someone who would embrace that sort of partnership.”
Berman was just that leader. Prior to his recruitment to VCU, he spent a decade at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus where he treated patients and served as associate director of research in the Movement Disorders Center at UCHealth. His research interests include using advanced brain imaging methods and non-invasive neurostimulation strategies to study brain structure and function alterations that occur with Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.
“Brian has a national reputation as an expert clinician and talented physician-scientist and educator,” Smith says. “But what made him truly stand out were his leadership, humility and interpersonal skills.”
Berman arrived on VCU’s MCV Campus in September 2020 as director of the PMDC and was appointed to Bemiss Chair in July 2021. VCU’s collaborative research culture and goal of becoming a national leader in neuroscience enticed Berman, along with the legacy represented by the Bemiss Chair.
“First, the story of Margaret Bemiss’s commitment to fundraising and advocating for the PMDC was inspiring and reflected the uniquely engaged local philanthropic community,” he says. “Secondly, the Bemiss Chair provides financial support that enables me to lead the center while building an independent research program. And finally, it was clear evidence of the value the Department of Neurology places on fostering relationships with families of grateful patients and honoring their legacy even after they have passed away.”
Berman’s vision for the PMDC encompasses expanding the excellent clinical care it’s known for along with growing a cutting-edge research program and creating robust community education about movement disorders for the public and other care providers. Berman successfully launched an annual grant program for PMDC pilot projects that provides seed funding for innovative research concepts. In its first year, the program awarded three $50,000 grants, which philanthropic support helped make a reality. “I’m proud of this program because it draws new investigators and fuels a critical phase of new research, while demonstrating the clear impact of philanthropic support.”
Berman is eager to continue building the PMDC’s breadth of expertise. “At the end of the day, I feel successful when I’ve been able to eliminate a barrier, identify a new opportunity or provide some guidance that helps enable a member of my team to reach their goals and experience their own success.”
Smith has no doubt that this leadership philosophy will make the Bemiss family proud. “Margaret Bemiss was one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known,” he says. “The search for a permanent PMDC director was personally very important to me as I had made a commitment to recruit a transformational leader who shared her vision. I believe Margaret is smiling down on us now with great pride.”
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