A tribute to a luminary: Beloved neuroscience professor honored at memorial symposium

“Please look after my students, they mean everything to me.”

This was one of the last things that Bob Handa, former professor and interim head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, said to his longtime friend and colleague Colin Clay, interim dean for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, before his passing in August 2021.

In a touching tribute to Handa, students and colleagues from around the country came together to celebrate his legacy as a scientist and a friend at the Bob Handa Memorial Research Symposium.

BMS graduate students at the Bob Handa Memorial Research Symposium. From top left: Mina Roueinfar, Renata Daniels, Alex Miller, Tyler Wallace, Derek Schaeuble and Sebastian Pace. From bottom left: Carley Dearing, Sarah Tan, Hayley Templeton, Emily Castellanos, Julietta Sheng and Amir Alayoubi. Photo courtesy of Julietta Sheng.

The event featured a series of scientific talks from faculty, researchers, and former trainees of Handa that highlighted leading trends in neuroanatomy, neuroendocrinology, and behavioral and molecular neuroscience. It concluded with a poster session of current projects from biomedical sciences graduate students.

While attendees spoke of Handa’s significant contributions to science and profound influence on their own work, they expressed equal admiration for his character and deep devotion to his family, friends, students and colleagues. As they recounted stories of fishing, playing hockey, and working and traveling with him, their sentiments always came back to his ever-present centeredness, calming sense of humor, steady and approachable demeanor, and natural gentle leadership.

“He inspired so many to be better scientists and better people,” said Bret Smith, professor and head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences.

A lasting legacy of critical research

Biomedical Sciences Professor and Interim Department Head Bob Handa (1953-2021). Photo by CVMBS.

Handa was known internationally as a leading expert in sexual differentiation of the brain. He believed that research and medicine should ultimately not only carefully consider the differences between males and females, but that it should also be dependent on an individual’s lifelong experiences.

Significant sex differences in many chronic diseases, including brain disorders, mean that better understanding the ways that males and females develop these conditions is a crucial first step to the development of improved treatments. Handa’s decades of research centered on exploring sex differences in the cellular underpinnings of stress responses and identifying key cellular factors that might impact neurons that control behavioral and endocrine responses to stress. Yet it wasn’t until 2016 that the National Institutes of Health finally implemented a guideline requiring both sexes to be studied in scientific research.

From investigating links between prenatal stress, sex differences and disease risk across the lifespan to how disruptions in fetal and early development can set the stage for psychiatric and medical disorders later in life, Handa’s work continues to have far-reaching impacts on advancing research and the development of precision medicine.

A natural leader inspiring the next generation

Bob Handa loved to share his passion for fishing. Photo courtesy of the Handa family.

“No matter what happened in the lab, Dr. Handa was always positive—and outside of the lab, he taught me how to catch and fillet a fish,” said biomedical sciences Ph.D. student Julietta Sheng. “He was also the best gardener I have ever met.”

From conducting lab meetings on his boat and sharing his passion for fishing, sports and good food, to calmly navigating his students through the complex challenges of scientific research and academia, Handa seemed to be able to do it all.

“I thought it was so cool that he had such a neat life outside of work,” said biomedical sciences Ph.D. student Emily Castellanos. “I loved talking to him about hockey. And I thought it was so amazing that he always answered our emails at all hours—how did he do it? It was always very evident that he cared about us.”

“And, he always had good food for us,” said biomedical sciences Ph.D. student Hayley Templeton. From tiramisu, tamales, pizza, donuts and bagels to smoked kokanee salmon he caught from Blue Mesa Reservoir, Handa loved to bring his lab delicious food as well as shower them with generous holiday gifts.

“He was such a friendly, approachable man who always saw the good in people,” said biomedical sciences Ph.D. student Sarah Tan. “I will always remember his smile.”

Bob Handa on the ice. Photo courtesy of the Handa family.

Handa was committed to helping students and colleagues succeed in research and academia and consistently provided idea development support and grant and manuscript critiques. He also organized multiple national and international workshops and symposia. His tireless championing of others has led to numerous successful careers in research, academia, government and industry.

“He was passionate about fostering international relationships and used science as a mechanism to bring people and cultures together,” said Clay.

Always generous with his time and advice, “he had a magical way of giving you an idea and making you think it was your own,” said biomedical sciences Ph.D. student Derek Schaeuble.

“He had an amazingly gentle guiding nature,” said biomedical sciences Ph.D. student Sebastian Pace. “He always seemed to know the right way to handle everything.”

Handa took on the role of interim head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences in 2019 and helped guide it through the incredibly challenging first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic with steadfast grace, patience and compassion.

“Bob never sought leadership, rather leadership always sought him,” said Clay. “Because his character is one of the purest embodiments of leadership I have ever seen—it was truly based on caring about others, respect, taking on heavy lifting, guiding by example and not by directive, and a firm belief that our differences pale in comparison to our similarities and our common purpose.”

Donations in Handa’s memory can be made to the Iris Handa Memorial Scholarship, a scholarship established by Handa in memory of his wife, Iris, that provides scholarships for students enrolled in the Department of Biomedical Sciences.