I am delighted to share the news that Harald W. Sontheimer, PhD, will join the University of Virginia School of Medicine on February 1, 2021, as its new Chair of the Department of Neuroscience. Dr. Sontheimer is an internationally recognized leader in in neuroscience, particularly in glial biology research and the role of these brain cells in physiology and disease. His work advances the understanding of the role of glia as drivers of abnormal neuronal activity, as well as malignant glioma, spontaneous seizures, and epilepsy.
Dr. Sontheimer obtained a Masters degree (1986) in the Department of Comparative Neurobiology from the University of Ulm, Germany, where he worked on the development of oculomotor reflexes. He earned a doctorate (1989) in Biophysics and Cellular & Molecular Neuroscience from the University of Heidelberg studying biophysical changes that accompany the development of oligodendrocytes, the principle myelinating cells of the nervous system.
He moved to the United States for post-doctoral studies at Yale University and began his independent research career there in 1991, studying the role of glia in acquired epilepsy. He continued this investigation at the University of Alabama Birmingham from 1994-2015 with a broad focus on the role of glial support cells in health and disease. His laboratory has made major discoveries that led to two clinical trials using novel compounds to treat malignant gliomas. His laboratory recently discovered that aberrant glutamate release from brain tumors is responsible for tumor associated epilepsy, and a clinical trial is underway to address this condition.
In 2005 Dr. Sontheimer founded TransMolecular Inc., a biotechnology startup company devoted to the development of novel treatments for brain cancer. Following successful phase I and II clinical trials, the company was acquired by Morphotec Pharmaceuticals in 2011.
Dr. Sontheimer founded the Center for Glial Biology in Medicine at the University of Alabama Birmingham in 2006, the first center in the world to focus on the study of glial cells in health and diseases. From 2005 to 2015, he directed the Civitan International Research Center, focused on the study and treatment of children with developmental disabilities ranging from Down’s syndrome to autism. In this capacity, Dr. Sontheimer was tasked with explaining complex scientific processes to a lay audience.
In 2015, Dr. Sontheimer was recruited to Virginia Tech to launch the School of Neuroscience for which he served as Executive Director. In this capacity Dr. Sontheimer gained approval from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia for this new academic unit and recruited 15 faculty members serving over 800 undergraduate students majoring in Neuroscience. In parallel, Dr. Sontheimer served on the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke as Director of the Glial Biology in Health Disease and Cancer Center.
Recognizing the need to further inform the public about neurological disorders in language that is accessible to an educated public, Dr. Sontheimer wrote a textbook entitled “Diseases of the Nervous system”, which was recognized with the 2016 Prose Award for Best Scientific Textbook.
Dr. Sontheimer is currently PI on three R01s and a W81, and he is co-PI on an R01 and a W81. He a dedicated educator who has trained many undergraduates and close to 60 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. He has published over 180 peer-reviewed publications. He is a sought-after speaker and regularly participates in national and international conferences. He serves on numerous advisory boards for many national and international agencies including the German Max Plank Society, the MIT Press, National Institute of Health, Citizens United for Epilepsy and American Brain Tumor Association.
At UVA, Dr. Sontheimer will have a strong role in translational research and strengthening collaboration across disciplines, including working closely with clinical scientists.
I thank Scott Zeitlin, PhD, who has led the department in an interim role while the search was being conducted. I also thank Howard Goodkin, MD, PhD, search committee chair, Susan Pollart, MD, search committee co-chair, and the dedicated members of the search committee who worked diligently to ensure they identified the top candidate.
Please join me in welcoming Dr. Sontheimer to the University of Virginia School of Medicine. He will provide exemplary leadership to the Department of Neuroscience and is a sterling addition to our team of faculty leaders.
David S. Wilkes, MD
Dean, UVA School of Medicine
James Carroll Flippin Professor of Medical Science