Raymond John Grill, neuroscientist and champion for neurotrauma & neurodegeneration research, passed away on May 30, 2018 at the age of 52. Our research community has lost an excellent scientist and an exceptional mentor.
A native Ohioan, Ray received his Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cellular Biology from the University of Cincinnati in 1995, where he studied factors promoting survival and maturation of distinct neuronal populations. He subsequently trained as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego from 1995–1999, working in the lab of Mark Tuszynski. There, Ray authored a study reporting trophic effects of neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) on corticospinal tract regeneration. This study received a large degree of press at the time of publication, and it was in fact this study that drew Paul Lu to spinal cord injury research from the field of plant biology.
Ray became a faculty member at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston, where he remained for sixteen years. In 2015, he moved his lab to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Ray's academic career, though tragically cut short, was dense and lucrative. He was dedicated to tackling the difficult questions in neurotrauma research, exploring understudied issues such as infertility, pain, and autonomic dysfunction that affect the day-to-day quality of life of individuals suffering from neurotrauma. His research was not limited to spinal cord injury, but also explored pathophysiologies resulting from traumatic brain injury and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Perhaps because of his persistent focus on these important but understudied questions, Ray received unbroken research support since 2001 from entities including the NIH, the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, Wings for Life, the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Foundation, the Paralyzed Veterans of America Research Foundation, the TIRR Foundation, and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.
Upon being presented with an Excellence in Research Award in 2017 for receiving over $1 million in extramural funding, Ray said, “Remember this is the best job you can ever have…you get to spend your life trying to solve problems that, if you are successful, might just make someone's life a little bit better.” It was because of this outlook and the deep love of his work that Ray worked tirelessly. It was uncommon not to see him in his office on a Saturday or Sunday morning, cheerfully whistling and sipping coffee. He genuinely enjoyed wet lab research and spent a great deal of time at the microscope, performing animal surgeries, and troubleshooting experimental hang-ups with his trainees and colleagues. Ray often took on a herculean amount of work because of his dedication not only to doing good science but also to helping others in their pursuit to do the same. He frequently volunteered to review and edit letters of intent or drafts of full grants, spent hours out of his day to sit with colleagues and discuss ways to improve their study design, and endlessly wrote letters of support for his peers and trainees. He dedicated himself particularly strongly to service in the scientific community, serving on countless grant review study sections and a long-time member of the IACUC.
Ray was an outstanding mentor to his students and postdocs, and invested a great deal of time in our success. He had a long-time habit of spending hours in the lab chatting about papers, his experiences at study sections, the forging of new collaborations, and much more. This enabled us to absorb a tremendous amount of knowledge about science and how to be effective academic scientists. Ray's students knew about indirect costs, who our program officers were, how to (and how not to) write an effective grant. We knew about the important problems plaguing those living with neurological disease and trauma. We knew the history of therapeutic approaches in the field, and why past interventions have largely failed. We were well-integrated into local and national neurotrauma research communities, and we established relationships with families affected by spinal cord injury. Most importantly, Ray instilled in us a strong spirit of collaboration. He knew that interdisciplinary partnerships lead to great advancements in science, and he reinforced this idea in our minds over and over.
Above all, Ray was a deeply compassionate person. He dedicated his career to neurotrauma and neurodegeneration research because of his deep conviction to do science that could potentially alleviate human suffering. As the director of the ALS Research Foundation in Jackson, Ray was also a tireless champion for ALS research and frequently led fundraising campaigns. On a more personal level, Ray cared deeply for his friends, and was always the first in line to donate to a fundraiser, or volunteer his help and expertise for a good cause. When friends put together an auction in support of an acquaintance who lost his job after the company he worked for folded overnight, Ray outbid everyone else (by orders of magnitude) to ensure that the auction was a success. He was known to do the same during silent auctions in support of the ALS Association, often later giving away the items he won. His acts of generosity, both large and small, were innumerable. Ray Grill left behind a legacy of love and compassion—of unwavering, superhuman kindness. It is up to all of us to carry this on.