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2024 Imagine More Dinner Benefits Neurosciences Research and Patient Care

MCW 2024 Imagine More Dinner attendees
(From left to right: Ceceila J. Hillard, PhD, ’83, Founding Director of the Neuroscience Research Center and G. Frederick Kasten, Jr. Endowed Chair in Parkinson’s Disease Research, Sara B. Pillay, PhD, ABPP, Assistant Professor of Neuropsychology and winner of the 2024 Imagine More Dinner research award, Shekar N. Kurpad, MD, PhD, ’01, and Benjamin Wagner, chair of the Neuroscience Research Center Board.)

An enthusiastic crowd of more than 350 people gathered at the Discovery World Museum on Milwaukee’s lakefront Tuesday, June 25, for the 11th annual Imagine More Dinner to raise awareness and funds for the Neuroscience Research Center (NRC) at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The audience included 2024 Imagine More Dinner sponsors, patients and their families, caregivers, community members, philanthropists, researchers and clinicians who share a goal of supporting medical discoveries and innovative treatments for the neurological diseases, injuries, and behavioral health conditions that are the focus of neuroscience research.

Jon Hammes, an MCW trustee and managing partner of the Hammes Company, and his wife Ann Hammes served as co-chairs for the event. In welcoming the audience, they noted the partnership between the Medical College of Wisconsin and Froedtert ThedaCare Health, which operates Froedtert Hospital, as a source of new scientific discoveries and treatments benefitting patients and families in eastern Wisconsin and across the state.

“Both Jon and I have a special passion for the research and clinical care that is being done at MCW and Froedtert Hospital to provide compassionate care for patients and families who are facing a neuro-disease or injury or behavioral health issue,” said Ann Hammes.

Jon Hammes emphasized the work of the Neuroscience Research Center and the recently established Wisconsin Institute of NeuroScience, a partnership of the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin health network, Children’s Wisconsin and the Zablocki VA Medical Center. The institute, under the leadership of founding director Shaker N. Kurpad, PhD, ’01, benefits adult and pediatric neurological patients with cutting edge clinical treatments, world class academic faculty and leading, international research.

MCW 2024 Imagine More Dinner | Dr. Kurpad and Jon Hammes
(Dr. Kurpad and Jon Hammes, 2024 Imagine More Dinner Co-Chair.)

“It all started with a vision,” Jon Hammes told the audience, “and the vision is to build a center of excellence in neuroscience here in Milwaukee. For that vision to become a reality it takes resources to attract the best physicians and to bring in the best medical researchers.”

“The return on those resources in our lives is to elevate the level of care for all of us, our families, our children and grandchildren,” he added.

Cecilia J. Hillard, PhD, ’83, the G. Frederick Kasten, Jr. Endowed Chair in Parkinson’s Disease Research and Founding Director of the Neuroscience Research Center was awarded the 2024 Neuro Hero Award. The award is given to an individual who has made significant contributions to advancing neurosciences research that leads to patient care.

Dr. Kurpad, in announcing the honor for Dr. Hillard, noted the expansion of neuroscience research at MCW during her tenure and the increase in community support for that work as indicated by the growth of attendees at the Imagine More Dinner over the last 11 years.

“It is fitting that this year’s Neuro Hero is Dr. Cecelia Hillard,” Dr. Kurpad said. “For her unwavering commitment to neuroscience research and zeal to bring the best research to Milwaukee.”

“Cece is the quintessence of what a researcher should be about: a deeply inquisitive mind that is coupled with an innate ability to mentor; There is none more qualified to be honored as our Neuro Hero this year.”

While accepting the award, Dr. Hillard noted, “leading the NRC, I have to say, has been one of the highest highlights of my career at MCW and that’s saying a lot because I have had a wonderful career.”

“I absolutely love learning from my colleagues,” she added. “That is one of the joys of this particular job – that I get to listen to what my incredible cohort of scientists are working on and what they are passionate about. And then doing what I can do to help enhance their success.”

MCW 2024 Imagine More Dinner | Dr. Hillard
(Dr. Hillard was the 2024 Neuro Hero honoree.)

Proceeds from the Imagine More Dinner directly support research aimed at advancing medical discovery in the neurosciences. This year featured recipients of the Imagine More Award and the inaugural Imagine More Postdoctoral Award.

The Imagine More Award went to Sara Pillay, PhD, ABPP, an assistant professor in Neuropsychology, to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that provides patients with aphasia an opportunity to undertake treatments at home. These patients are currently hampered by an inability to receive feedback from their clinicians and providers; This tool will be programmed to provide feedback in real time and promote memory recovery.

The inaugural Imagine More Postdoctoral Award was given to Vipra B. Raju, PhD, a fellow in the Department of Neurosurgery. He is working on an AI tool to rapidly and accurately provide an early diagnosis for patients with Degenerative Cervical Myelopathy, known as DCM, the most common cause of non-traumatic spinal cord injury worldwide. His research promises to give physicians the ability to treat patients earlier and improve their outcomes.

The event program also recognized Cathy Jacobson, the president and CEO of Froedtert ThedaCare Health who had previously announced her plans to retire effective July 1, 2024, John R. Raymond, Sr., MD, president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Dr. Hillard thanked Cathy for her years of service as a healthcare and community leader.

“Cathy is retiring after an outstanding career of service and leadership dedicated to improving patient care in our region and around Wisconsin,” said Dr. Raymond. “With her drive and her vision, she has propelled Froedtert ThedaCare Health and the Medical College of Wisconsin to be among the very best in the country.”

The theme of the 2024 Imagine More Dinner was stroke. Jeffrey R. Binder, MD, professor of Neurology and director of research at the WE Energies Center for Aphasia Research and Recovery at MCW, gave a keynote address to discuss new therapies available for recovering stroke patients who experience aphasia.

Patients with aphasia lose the ability to communicate normally using speech and other forms of language – a common side effect of stroke. Aphasia is devastating and often isolating for patients, their families, and caregivers, who struggle daily with inability to communicate and join in social activities.

Benjamin Wagner, chair of the Neuroscience Research Center Board and an attorney with Habush, Habush and Rottier, SC., said in his remarks that investments in research at the Medical College of Wisconsin have served to transform the region into a destination for outstanding patient care.

Noting that his mother had sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic after suffering a brain aneurysm 40 years ago, Wagner said that the research and clinical enterprise now available to serve patients and families meant that his mother could be expertly treated at the Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin Health network. He also stressed that more needed to be done.

“We are here tonight filled with hope,” Wagner said. "Hope that one day ALS is not a death sentence, hope that addiction can be cured, hope that we will illuminate the dark rooms in the depressed mind, that we can prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease, reverse paralysis, and that we can prevent and cure Parkinson’s disease.”