Thinking Broadly, Acting Intentionally

Meet Grace Pavlath, MDA's new scientific director

Grace Pavlath, who holds a doctoral degree in pharmacology and is a professor at Emory University, now leads a therapy development-focused scientific program at MDA.
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MDA's new scientific director Grace Pavlath will apply 30 years of experience as an academic researcher in neuromuscular disease to guiding the organization's investments in therapy development.

by Margaret Wahl on January 5, 2015 - 9:09am

Quest Winter 2015

Grace Pavlath, an accomplished muscle disease researcher and a professor in the Department of Pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, recently joined MDA as senior vice president and scientific program director. She will be based in Atlanta initially and will eventually relocate to Washington, D.C.

Beginning in November 2014, Pavlath, who holds a doctoral degree in pharmacology, became responsible for the overall management and further development of MDA’s scientific program, which is focused on delivering effective therapies for the 43 neuromuscular diseases covered by MDA.

"For almost 30 years, Dr. Pavlath has established herself as a leading researcher in cellular and molecular mechanisms that are critical for muscle growth and repair," said neurologist Valerie Cwik, M.D., MDA's executive vice president and chief medical and scientific officer. Cwik is working closely with Pavlath in maintaining the results-driven focus of MDA’s program. "She brings a profound understanding and insider’s knowledge to today’s research landscape and will play a critical role in further leveraging MDA’s clinic infrastructure and research programs, while working collaboratively with industry stakeholders," Cwik said.

MDA's research grants program has adopted new strategies that can be described as "intentional" and "proactive." The organization plans to direct a greater percentage of its research budget to therapy development than it has in the past, making Pavlath's background in pharmacology (the branch of biology concerned with the study of drug action) particularly relevant. In addition, MDA will work to identify barriers, gaps and opportunities for therapy development and will direct funding to those through organization-initiated projects. (Investigator-initiated proposals will, however, remain an important part of the program.)

Applying well-honed skills — and pursuing a passion for chocolate

Pavlath graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in physiology and received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1985. She then completed postdoctoral training at Stanford and at the University of Arizona, joining the faculty at Emory University in 1994.

Her early research focused on coaxing the immune system to accept new cells transplanted into muscle, while the goal of her more recent research has been to understand the molecular underpinnings of oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy (OPMD), with an eye to therapy development.

Pavlath’s scientific work has been widely published in prestigious journals, and she is the recipient of numerous research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Heart Association and Emory University, as well as from MDA.

Pavlath also was a member of the MDA Scientific Advisory Committee from 2008 to 2014, helping to guide the organization's research investments.

She has served on numerous national, international and institutional committees, and has organized and chaired several conferences on muscle development and muscle disease.

Pavlath describes her decision to move from academic research to administering the scientific program at MDA as a way to apply more broadly her 30 years of experience in neuromuscular disease. "I love thinking more broadly," Pavlath says, "and applying analytical skills that were honed differently to a larger array of diseases."

Outside the lab and office, Pavlath loves baking, teaching and hosting cooking classes in her Atlanta home. "Chocolate is my passion," she says. She lives with her husband, Dirk Zwemer, who develops scientific software, and two rescue dogs, Stanley and Angie. Two adult daughters, Margit and Suzanne, live in San Francisco and New York, respectively.

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