One of the country’s pre-eminent neurological researchers, Eva Feldman has also dedicated her career to helping the next generation of scientists
By Jeanelle Olson
Photography by Erin Kirkland
One morning in 1988, a young mother named Eva Feldman got a phone call. It was the University of Michigan asking if she could meet a potential fellowship mentor, one she’d really wanted to connect with.
Feldman was already an accomplished scientist, completing her M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and a neurology residency at Johns Hopkins. In the previous days, she had managed to coax her kids, then 4, 2, and 3 weeks, into matching outfits to accompany her to similar meetings. (Their babysitter had quit in an ill-timed twist of fate.) Each time, despite her impressive resume, she was warmly received and quickly turned away. “I’d hand them my CV and they’d say things like, ‘Darling, don’t you want to get a part-time job as a neurologist and stay home with the children?’” recalls Feldman, now 68. “It was time, after time, after time.”
Arriving at the University of Michigan office, baby in one arm, older kids by her side, Feldman handed over her CV. No sooner could she introduce herself than her daughter announced, “I’m a ballerina!” and began dancing around the room. Her son followed suit, introducing himself as Superman, and in a final coup de grace, the baby spit up on the professor. Mortified, Feldman figured she’d just show herself out. But the professor stopped her and said, “Anyone who has the nerve to come into an office with three children has a job.” Over the next 10 years, Dr. Douglas Greene would support and guide Feldman in the early days of her career, even helping her get her first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant.
In the decades since, Feldman, who lives in Ann Arbor, has received countless grants and opportunities to conduct groundbreaking research into neurological disorders that impact millions of people. In 2008, she started the Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute at the University of Michigan with Taubman himself, one of her patients at the time, and directed the Institute for nearly 10 years.
Feldman is also the director of the U-M ALS Center of Excellence and runs a 30-scientist laboratory. Called the NeuroNetwork for Emerging Therapies, her lab looks at the causes and possible treatments for a variety of neurological diseases. In addition to helping people impacted by those diseases, Feldman sees her many achievements as a means to mentor the young scientists she works with. “I’ve got a lot of other ticks in the box, but if I’m able to take 30 years of my experience and help the next generation,” she says, it’s a career well-spent.
Looking back, Feldman considers that long-ago encounter at University of Michigan as a pivotal moment in her identity as a woman scientist. Being seen completely, as a whole person, by Greene — despite, or maybe because of, that colorful first meeting — taught Feldman the importance of choosing who to surround herself with. “It’s like birds of a feather in that sense,” she says. “I needed to be with other birds who valued the fact that I was a devoted mother as well as a devoted doctor, a devoted scientist and a devoted mentor.” That advice, which she has shared with her own mentees, both men and women, has paid off. In 2016, she received an award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Mentoring from the Society for Neuroscience.
Now, Feldman’s laboratory is made up primarily of women scientists, a fact she is proud of. “It’s not that I choose them,” she says. “They choose me.” On the one hand, she’s seen vast improvements in opportunities for women in the sciences. On the other, she still sees gender disparities and a need to mentor and encourage young women in her field to keep going. “Sometimes a woman needs that little extra support,” she says, “because three of her children are sick yet she’s supposed to go to a scientific meeting and give a talk. So when the floor falls out from under her, we do need a social, scientific, and family community.”
Since she was young, Feldman, who was raised between Rome and Evansville, Indiana (her parents met in New York, where her Italian mother was on vacation after WWII), says her family encouraged her to pursue a career as a physician. As luck would have it, she adored biology and became interested in neurology later on.
Feldman has been especially influenced by women, and mothers in particular, in her career. During her residency, she saw a patient with symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. The patient had brought her children with her to the appointment, and Feldman — herself a mother of two at the time — was heartsick because she really identified with the woman as a mom. The attending doctor brusquely told the patient she had three years to live. Feldman had two thoughts: “One, I’m never going to be a doctor like that. Secondly, I want to understand diseases like that.”
Driven by experiences like this, Feldman loves that she gets to conduct groundbreaking research to study these diseases, and translate that research to the clinical side to treat patients. (For example, in patients with type 2 diabetes, Feldman and her researchers pioneered the concept that high fat levels in the blood are as important as high blood sugar in neuropathy — the loss of sensation in the feet that can lead to ulcers and amputations.) Feldman’s was also the first group to complete two FDA-approved clinical trials implanting stem cells into the nervous system of patients with ALS.
Today, Feldman’s lab is working through 10 NIH grants, studying everything from repurposing an ALS drug to treat Alzheimer’s, to diabetes complications particular to Native American groups, for which she often travels to Arizona. Feldman says she’s not slowing down anytime soon. She is, however, looking forward to seeing how her influence plays out in those she has mentored, including her own kids: Superman is a lawyer now, and the ballerina and the baby grew up to be doctors.
Update: In May, Dr. Eva Feldman’s ALS Clinic received a $2 million donation from Scott Pranger, a West Michigan philanthropist. It’s been renamed the Pranger ALS Clinic in memory of his wife, Cathleen, who passed away in 2015 due to ALS.