Venture Philanthropists

Alumni help Fox Foundation improve life for those with Parkinson’s disease.

By Melanie Rehak
This is an image of Brian Fiske and Brian Sherer

Brian Fiske and Todd Sherer, who received their Ph.D.s in neuroscience at U.Va., help the Michael J. Fox Foundation fund science with real-life applications for patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Photo by Leslye Smith

“We like to call ourselves venture philanthropists,” says Brian Fiske (PhD Neuroscience ’01), associate director of research programs at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. “Other people raise the money, and then we help them spend it.”

He and Todd Sherer (PhD Neuroscience ’99), the Fox Foundation’s vice president of research programs, met as graduate students in U.Va.’s psychology-neuroscience program. For Sherer, the progression from U.Va. to a post-doc at Emory University focused on Parkinson’s disease and then to the foundation was a natural one. “I was always really interested in the linking between behavior and biology,” he says, and “how changes in that biology could result in disease states. Even in my Ph.D. at U.Va. I worked on understanding the cell biology of neurodegenerative disease, specifically Parkinson’s.”

Fiske, who had always approached neuroscience from a more generalized perspective, took a less traditional route after his own post-doc at Columbia University by becoming an editor at Nature Neuroscience, one of the field’s most prestigious journals, before joining his former colleague at the Fox Foundation. “Brian, by getting the editorial job, was more exposed much more broadly to all aspects of neuroscience and now is
applying that kind of general knowledge to a specific area,” Sherer explains. “I was always interested in having a disease angle on the research I was doing.”

Their complementary interests have dovetailed perfectly to serve the mission of the Fox Foundation, which last year alone gave out $25 million in research grants to companies and academic labs worldwide, $110 million total since its founding in 2000. “We both use our science backgrounds to help strategize and build the different funding programs we have,” Fiske says of their work reviewing proposals, deciding who gets the grant money and then keeping track of the outcomes. “We interact with the scientists in the field and try to figure out what are the major issues that need our support; then we manage those proposals afterwards, making sure people deliver what they said they would deliver. We also then try to evaluate those results and see if there’s sort of a next step.”

Unlike many other organizations devoted to disease research, the Fox Foundation is committed to finding solutions for managing and ultimately even preventing Parkinson’s that have real-life implications. “One of the things that’s exciting about working at the foundation is that it has a real urgency to try to push discoveries and science towards applications for patients,” says Sherer. “That’s something that can sometimes get lost when you’re in your lab focusing on your experiments, and that’s something that comes down all the way from the top at the foundation on a daily basis: What are we doing and how can that impact patients’ lives in the short-term? To me that is very rewarding in terms of applying your scientific knowledge in a meaningful way.”

And while both men say they occasionally miss the sense of discovery that comes with performing experiments and being the person who looks through the microscope to discover that another mystery has been solved, they also have a clear sense that what they’re doing now is every bit as critical. “We’re sort of investing in science to find out how to improve therapies more,” says Fiske. “And you can still be excited about the results even if you’re not the person who actually played with the test tube.”