In memoriam: Michael Bowers, first faculty recruit for School of Neuroscience
Jerald Michael “Mike” Bowers, the first faculty member hired to join the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, died July 27, 2021, after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 48.
Bowers, an assistant professor, interviewed for the School of Neuroscience in November 2015 even before its approval by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors or the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. His research focused on language and neurodevelopment disorders, including the development of language and, separately, children with autism spectrum disorder.
Recently, Bowers and his research team were using rat models to understand the genetic origins of stuttering. “Most of the research with stuttering has been focused on treatment with little work done on the neurobiology of what causes stuttering,” Bowers said in 2019. “We are looking for the gene mechanisms behind stuttering. We hope this research will lead to future treatments, maybe via gene therapy, to correct the problem before it ever begins.”
Bowers was born on Sept. 23, 1972, in Oklahoma.
His death sent shockwaves through the School of Neuroscience, Virginia Tech College of Science, and beyond, with faculty and staff, students, alumni, colleagues, and friends sharing phone calls, emails, social media posts, and texts in their grief. Harald Sontheimer, the founding director of the school and now a professor at the University of Virginia, said, “He was the first recruit, the catalyst who took his chance on a startup that was not even approved. His joining [Virginia Tech] made it happen. He was at every [faculty] recruitment dinner. He was the first to teach big classes. … I miss him dearly.”
Michael Fox, a professor and current director of the School of Neuroscience and a professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, echoed those sentiments.
“Mike was an irreplaceable member of our school, university, and community. He was a passionate and skillful educator, an excellent experimentalist, a dedicated and approachable mentor, a committed team member, a leader, and most importantly a friend to all,” Fox said. “He was an outstanding man we lost far too soon. I have been receiving comments and memories about Mike from students, faculty, leaders, and friends for the past week. These notes not only speak to his professional accomplishments, but they recount stories of Mike as an empathetic, caring, kind, and thoughtful man. Someone who listens. Someone who advocates for others. Someone you want to talk or spend time with. Simply, Mike touched all of our lives and he made the school, Virginia Tech, and Blacksburg a better place.”
Kristin Phillips, an assistant professor of neuroscience and director of the school’s undergraduate programs, added, “Mike Bowers was one-of-a-kind. He was one of the first people I met when I came to Virginia Tech and was a continual source of inspiration and support. When I interviewed here, he went out of his way to help me prepare for my guest lecture and gave me valuable and candid advice. I attribute much of my success in that interview to his support.”
Niesha Savory, a fourth-year student double majoring in clinical neuroscience and psychology, said she was impressed with her first meeting of Bowers. It was he who encouraged her to volunteer for research inside labs. She now conducts research in the lab of Shannon Farris at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke.
“He was my first mentor, my first PI, my first minority neuroscientist I had ever met, my first faculty supporter. He is a huge part of the reason I’m where I am now because he started me down the path and influenced my actions since then,” Savory said. “His selflessness was exemplified when he wrote me a letter of recommendation this past June, while fighting his own battle. I had no clue about his struggles and yet he took on the task, saying nothing about it. I am still processing how someone could be so passionate about their students, so kind, so caring, as he was, while silently going through his own problems. I want to be just like him. And I want to succeed even more thanks to the mark he left on my life. I will miss him dearly. He was a beautiful soul that had done so much for me and others.”
In November 2016, Bowers gave a TEDxVirginiaTech talk before 800 people at the Moss Arts Center. The talk, titled “What Can the Rat Tell Us about Language and Communication Disorders?,” has been viewed on YouTube more than 4,000 times. The talk inspired Christine Faunce, then a first-year student and now a 2021 alumnus with dual degrees in experimental neuroscience and medicinal chemistry, to study neuroscience.
“Dr. Bowers always inspired me to be curious about neuroscience. I remember being a freshman and attending the TEDxVirginiaTech talks and hearing him speak about his research,” said Faunce, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “The way he spoke was captivating, but what stood out to me most was his humble demeanor after the talks. I went to introduce myself as well as to congratulate him on such a great talk in the lobby of the Moss Arts Center, but I will always remember how he quickly turned the conversation around to get to know me. … Our community has suffered a great loss, but I have hope that the lessons of STEM mentorship, inclusive practices, and love for neuroscience will be carried through the hundreds – thousands - of students who were able to cross paths with him.”
John Lemons, a 1960 Virginia Tech alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, has lived with a stutter since childhood. He helped coordinate funding that supported Bowers’ research into stuttering and other communication difficulties. He followed the research closely.
“I felt like my life changed when Dr. Michael Bowers was hired by Virginia Tech,” Lemons said. “From day one Mike wanted me to feel like I was an honorary member of his research team. The fact that I, with a couple of anonymous friends, were allowed to donate $200,000 to his research was truly our honor. Mike left us much too soon. He was so close in finding the cause for stuttering. I will miss him dearly. I loved that man like a brother.”
Before joining Virginia Tech, Bowers was at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in Baltimore, where he served as a postdoctoral fellow with its neuroscience program. There, he made a novel discovery of a sex difference in the expression of a gene known to be involved in language and brain development. The characteristic was found in both humans and rats, Bowers said in 2016. He won the school’s Postdoctoral Scholar of the Year award in 2013 and its Neuroscience Future Mentor of the Year award in 2014. He had earned grants from the National Research Service Award, National Institutes of Health, and a Hartwell Foundation Fellowship.
At Virginia Tech, Bowers won a department award for Outstanding Contributions to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in 2020. He played a critical role in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bridges to Baccalaureate Program, which emphasizes innovative pedagogy and inclusion of students from diverse backgrounds, according to Sarah Clinton, associate director and an associate professor in the School of Neuroscience. He was also celebrated for his service at the department, college, and university levels, including chair of the School of Neuroscience Diversity Committee, chair of the College of Science Diversity committee, and a representative with the Native American Caucus to the Committee for Equal Opportunity and Diversity at Virginia Tech.
Clinton Roby worked with Bowers as a lab manager at the University of Maryland for several years, and followed him to Virginia Tech. “Mike was a precise and skilled scientist, experiments I performed using tissues he prepared always gave clean results,” said Roby, who is currently working at the COVID-19 testing lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “He was also extremely dedicated. He told me once that every night before bed, he would spend an hour listening to his recordings of rat vocalizations. He was going to learn rat ‘speak.’ He said this ended up being very important, because at his Virginia Tech job talk, he couldn’t get the audio working during his presentation, so he had to whistle along with the video traces of his rat recordings. Yes, he did know rat-speak.”
Bowers is survived by his wife, Angella Johnson, step-daughters Tessa and Lily Johnson, mother Joy Bowers, brother James Bowers, and sister Kim Bowers. Preceded in death by his father Joseph William Bowers Jr. According to the family, Angella was Bowers’ first kiss in sixth grade and last kiss before his passing.
Those in the Virginia Tech community who may wish assistance or desire counseling support may contact:
- Cook Counseling Center at 540-231-6557
- Dean of Students Office at 540-231-3787
- Office of Housing and Residence Life at 540-231-6205
- Hokie Wellness at 540-231-2233 (students) or 540-231-8878 (employees)
- Employee Assistance Program
- Anthem at 1-855-223-9277
- Aetna at 1-888-238-6232 (company name: Commonwealth of Virginia, username: COVA, password: COVA)
- Kaiser Permanente at 1-866-517-7042
Referrals to a campus cleric may be done through the Dean of Students Office at 540-231-3787.