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Richards named head of neuroscience

Recognized for expertise in brain’s formation and wiring, developmental disorders

by Tamara BhandariApril 3, 2020

Patrick Hamilton Photography

Linda J. Richards, PhD, recognized internationally for her expertise in brain development and developmental disorders, has been named head of the Department of Neuroscience and the Edison Professor of Neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She will take the helm Jan. 1.

Richards is a professor of neuroscience and the deputy director of research at the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

“Dr. Richards has made groundbreaking scientific contributions to our understanding of brain development while also establishing herself as a leader in planning and cultivating strategic nationwide and global brain initiatives for research that help society better understand the brain and nervous system,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Linda has an exciting vision for the future of neuroscience, and her work with leading scientists from many countries will allow her to expand the reach of our university to continue its historic position as a global leader in research on the nervous system.”

Richards investigates how the brain forms during development and how disruptions to normal development lead to brain disorders and brain cancer. Her laboratory investigates the formation of the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. The corpus callosum is affected in many intellectual disability syndromes.

In particular, Richards studies how neurons from one brain hemisphere grow across the midline and find their target in the opposite hemisphere. Her research into a specific family of genes that controls the development of support cells in the brain known as glial cells has provided insight into how processes that regulate brain development may be disrupted in brain cancer.

In 2015, she co-founded the International Consortium for the Corpus Callosum and Cerebral Connectivity with colleagues from Australia, the U.S., France, Germany and Brazil. The consortium brings together clinicians and scientists working to identify the causes of developmental brain disorders and to find better ways to provide support and care for affected individuals and families.

Richards also has made important contributions to increasing public awareness of science and engaging the community in the importance of science. In 2006, she founded the Australian Brain Bee Challenge, a national branch of an international competition for high school students that is designed to inspire young people to learn about the brain, neurological diseases and mental illnesses, and to pursue careers in neuroscience. More than 30,000 Australian high school students have participated in the challenge. She is a scientific adviser and patron of AusDoCC, the Australian Disorders of the Corpus Callosum patient support group.

Washington University School of Medicine is one of the world’s premier institutions in neuroscience research. With its illustrious 120-year history as a leader in basic neuroscience research and the teaching of neuroanatomy, the Department of Neuroscience is an integral part of the school’s leadership in the field. Its scientists have elucidated fundamental mechanisms that govern neural circuit assembly and activity and helped identify the neurobiological underpinnings of intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorders, among myriad other discoveries.

In addition, two Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have been won by scientists at Washington University for neuroscience research.

Richards will be taking over the department during the construction of an 11-story, 609,000-square-foot neuroscience research building that will house research labs from a wide array of disciplines, including the School of Medicine’s neuroscience, neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and anesthesiology departments. The state-of-the-art structure will be one of the largest neuroscience research buildings in the country. It will bring together more than 100 research teams and will advance some of the world’s leading neuroscience research.

“I am honored to be taking up this exciting role,” Richards said. “The Department of Neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is renowned for its excellence in medical and graduate education, and as a powerhouse with outstanding research leadership, innovative thinking and superb mentorship of trainees. Understanding the brain is one of the greatest scientific challenges of our time. Our current minimal understanding of even basic brain processes is hampering our ability to understand and treat neurological disease and mental illnesses. The department is perfectly poised to make crucial breakthroughs in understanding the fundamental underpinnings of brain function in the coming years. Integrating interdisciplinary science into our discovery pipeline will be key, as will maintaining and building the outstanding scientific environment at Washington University, where creative scientists across the entire university can work together to drive new discoveries.”

Richards earned her bachelor’s degree at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and her bachelor of science with honors and a doctoral degree at the University of Melbourne, through the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne, before moving to San Diego for postdoctoral studies at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences. She took her first faculty position at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she focused on molecular genetic mechanisms of brain development. In 2005, she moved back to Australia to take up a faculty position in the Queensland Brain Institute. She became deputy director of research within the institute in 2015.

Among her many honors are the Charles Judson Herrick Award from the American Association of Anatomists and the Nina Kondelos Award from the Australasian Neuroscience Society. She was elected as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2015, an appointment equivalent to election to the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S., and as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences in 2016, corresponding to the National Academy of Medicine in the U.S. In 2019, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia, for distinguished service to medical research and education in the field of developmental neurobiology and to community engagement in science. In 2018, she was appointed to the Australian government’s Million Minds Mission Advisory Panel and in 2020 as Australia’s representative on the Council of Scientists for the Human Frontiers Science Program.

Richards succeeds interim head Paul Taghert, PhD, a professor of neuroscience, and former head Azad Bonni, MD, PhD, who stepped down in 2019 to join Roche as global head of neuroscience and rare diseases research and early development.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,500 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, ranking among the top 10 medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.