About the Department

In Memoriam

John A. DeSimone, Ph.D., February 26, 2019, at age 76.  John was born in August, 1942.  He received his undergraduate degree in Chemistry in 1964 from SUNY at Buffalo, and a Ph.D. in Biophysics in 1971 from Harvard University under the mentorship of S. Roy Caplan. After completing postdoctoral training in Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, he joined the Central Research Division of the 3M Company in St. Paul in 1973 as a Research Scientist. John joined our faculty in 1974, advanced through the ranks, and served as Chair.

John and his team made many important contributions to our understanding of taste. The central focus of his research was on discovering the transduction mechanisms for salty and sour taste qualities. Electrophysiological recordings from the taste nerves of laboratory animals and fluorescence imaging studies on isolated taste buds indicate the existence of two taste-related cation detectors in taste receptor cells. One is the sodium-specific epithelial sodium channel, ENaC, while the other is sensitive to a variety of cations and has many, but not all, of the physiological and pharmacological properties of the vanilloid receptor 1 or TRPV1.

Physiological studies by John and his colleagues demonstrated that taste receptor cells are intracellular pH sensors. The intensity of the neural response to acids is proportional to the decrease in intracellular pH, and adaptation to acids in taste receptor cells is achieved through a calcium-activated sodium-hydrogen exchanger. John’s group more recently found that the early phasic part of the neural response to acids has a transduction mechanism different from the later tonic part. This phasic part depends on a rapid cell volume decrease subsequent to a decrease in intracellular pH. Most recently, he was concerned about the role for proton channels in a subset of sour-sensing taste cells in responding to strong acids.  John remained active throughout his retirement and illness.  His most recent paper, “Otopetrin-1: A sour-tasting proton channel,” with Scott Ramsey appeared in the Journal of General Physiology in June, 2018. Obituary.

George D. Ford, Ph.D., March 31, 2017, at age 76. George joined the faculty in 1969 and studied muscle physiology. He was Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, served as Director of our  Graduate Program, and later as Assistant Dean of Medicine for Sponsored Programs Research until his retirement in 2015. He received his B.S. in Physics (1961) from West Virginia University, his M.S. in Physics (1964) from Iowa University, and his Ph.D. in Pharmacology (1967) from West Virginia University.  George was an avid golfer, served as past president of the Richmond Golf Association and frequently organized tournaments for Mill Quarter Golf association. George was a fan of bananas, crossword puzzles, westerns, good whiskey, and sports of all kinds.

Louis J. De Felice, Ph.D.  November 14, 2016, at age 76. VCU NEWS  Lou joined the faculty in 2008.  He was Professor of Physiology & Biophysics, served as Vice-Chair beginning in 2010, and as Assistant Dean for Graduate Education since 2008 he directed the Pre-medical Certificate Program and developed the admissions portal for PhD applicants in the SOM.  Dr. De Felice received his BS & MS (1962 & 1964) in Physics from Florida State University, PhD (1967) in Physics from U. Calgary, and was a postdoc in physiology at McGill U. (1967-69), and U Leiden in The Netherlands (1969-70).  Dr. DeFelice was Research Asst. Professor in Leiden (1970-71), rose through the ranks to Professor of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Emory (1971-95) while holding an appointment in Electrical Engineering at GaTech and was Professor of Physiology & Neuroscience at Vanderbilt (2996-2008).  Dr. De Felice was a distinguished scientist who made numerous contributions.   Among these were important contributions to fluctuation analysis methods to study single channel properties, and he extensively used biophysical and molecular methods to study monoamine transporters (norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin). His laboratory discovered that, in addition to mediating the reaccumulation of neurotransmitters,  these membrane proteins also are responsible for ionic currents that can depolarize and activate neurons.  The same transporters are affected by drugs of abuse including amphetamine-like drugs and synthetic cathinones, which are components of “bath salts.”  Two of his trainees, Dr. I. Scott Ramsey and Dr. Jose-Miguel Eltit, are members of our faculty. 

Donald D. Price, Ph.D., Sept. 7, 2016, at age 74.was a member of the physiology faculty from 1971-1974.  Don had earned his Ph.D. in neurophysiology UC, Davis in 1969 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA prior to joining our faculty.   He collaborated with Dr. David Mayer, who was recruited by physiology at the same time, and also with faculty in Neurosurgery and Anesthesiology.   After spending several years at NIH, Don returned to VCU and joined Anesthesiology from 1980-1997 and then moved to the University of Florida.  His research focused on physiological and psychological mechanisms of pain perception, and he authored over 300 publications.

Robert S. Moreland, Ph.D., August 1, 2016, trained with Dr. George Ford  and earned his Ph.D. in 1979. He did post-doctoral training with Dr. R.A. Murphy at UVA and was Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at Drexel for many years.   Bob was a highly accomplished smooth muscle physiologist with interests in vascular and bladder smooth muscle, EC coupling, Ca sensitization, hypertension, diabetes and benign prostatic hyperplasia.   Bob also was recognized in 2008 as a Distinguish Alumnus of the VCU School of Basic Health Sciences (prior to merger of basic sciences with SOM).   PubMed lists 79 peer reviewed papers

Stephen F.Cleary, Ph.D., June 7, 2016. Steve received his undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from New York University College of Engineering (B.S. 1958), a Masters in Science in radiation biophysics from the University of Rochester (1960), and his Ph.D. in Biophysics and Statistics from New York University (1964). He joined Physiology & Biophysics in 1964 and was on the faculty for 38 years.  He was internationally recognized for his research on non-ionizing radiation with a focus on microwave radiation and cellular phone frequencies on mammalian cells in monolayer cultures and in suspension. The goals were twofold: to determine safe exposure levels for humans and other living systems, and to determine whether such fields can be used for beneficial purposes, such as tissue regeneration or wound healing.  Over his distinguished career, he consulted for NASA, DHHS, DOD, Atomic Energy Commission, NIH, NIOSH, OSHA, EPA, CDC,  Bureau of Radiological Health, and National Academy of Science and was a founder and charter board member of the Bioelectromagnetics Society.

F. Norman Briggs, Ph.D., August 7, 2009.  Norm Briggs passed away in his sleep from complications from chemotherapy.  Norm served as Chair of the Department of Physiology at MCV, Health Science Division of VCU, from 1971-1983.  He completed his studies in Physiology and Endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley (A.B. 1947, M.S. 1948, Ph.D. 1953), and trained in muscle physiology in Heidelberg, Germany (1955).  Norm held academic positions at Harvard Dental School, Harvard Medical School, Tufts Medical School and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine before joining VCU in 1971.

As a department chair, Norm recruited a number of talented scientists, many of whom remain as active faculty members at the time of his passing.  He recruited Ellis Ridgway and David Mayer in 1972, Peter Clamann and Donald Mikulecky in 1973, John DeSimone and Roland Pittman in 1974, Margaret Biber, Thomas Biber, Alexandre Fabiato, and Barry Stein in 1975, Clive Baumgarten, Richard Costanzo, Steven Driska, Joseph Feher, and Mohammed Kalimi in 1979, and Linda Costanzo in 1981.  Under his leadership, the department ranked among the top 10 physiology departments in the country.

Norm made many contributions to the scientific literature and to the development of careers of eminent scientists including John Solaro, Earl Homsher, Michael Hess. 

Joseph Feher recalls a story as an example of Norm’s empathy for and support of colleagues in the Department. When Norm arrived in our Department from Pittsburgh, Sybil Street was still a member of our faculty.  She was the wife and colleague of Robert Ramsey, for whom the Ramsey Award is named, and she was instrumental in the publication of their length-tension data obtained on single isolated fibers, because at the time Sybil Street was the only one in the world who could produce those single fibers.   This was in the late 40's and early 50's.  These data were an important part of the information that led Huxley and Niedergarke to postulate the sliding filament hypothesis of muscle contraction.  The paper by Ramsey and Street remains part of our classical heritage. After Bob Ramsey died, Sybil remained in the Department.  I recall Norm having several discussions with Sybil Street about her work and later learned that Norm supported her last research efforts with Departmental funds, and directed Bob Wise, a state-supported technician assigned to Norm, to aid Sybil in any way possible, but particularly in designing and making devices to measure the tiny forces produced by single muscle fibers.  Sybil used these funds, and Bob's help, to publish yet another classic paper in 1983 in the Journal of Cell Physiology.  Every serious student of muscle physiology ought to know this paper, which deals with the lateral transmission of force in muscle.

Norman Briggs will be missed by all of us in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics.  Those of us who knew him and those who know of him continue to enjoy the many good things he contributed to the department and the institution during his many years of service to VCU.