For Dr. Holly Van Remmen, “research is a puzzle.”
As a child, Holly Van Remmen loved to figure out how things worked. Even her younger sister’s supposedly impregnable Fisher-Price transistor radio fell prey to her inquiring mind. “I used butter knives, screwdrivers and all kinds of things to get inside it,” she says. “I just had to know what made the music play.”
In college, a part-time job in a nursing home stoked the fire of her curiosity. What, she wondered, was driving the biological changes she saw in the older people she helped care for? To find out, she enrolled in a graduate program focused on physiology and aging. A career as a researcher in the field followed, first at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, and then, since 2013, at OMRF.
Her research has focused on age-related muscle loss and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. She’s made a series of important insights on muscle degeneration, including identifying links between traumatic brain injuries and neurodegeneration. Her inquiries, she says, revolve around a single theme: “To help people to be stronger for longer.”
This past summer, her peers recognized the impact of her work by naming her the president of the American Aging Association. The 53-year-old organization brings together scientists and clinicians to promote research aimed at slowing the aging process.
For Dr. Arlan Richardson, Van Remmen’s former mentor and now a collaborator at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, the honor is hardly surprising. “Dr. Van Remmen is a tremendously hard worker and has a gift for fostering collaboration. She is one of the leading researchers in geroscience, and her leadership will impact the field for many years.”
Together with Richardson, she’s also made Oklahoma one of only eight Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence, a sought-after designation from the National Institutes of Health that comes with a multimillion-dollar grant to support aging research at OMRF, OUHSC and the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center.
Van Remmen, who holds the G.T. Blankenship Chair in Aging Research, stepped down at year’s end as leader of OMRF’s Aging & Metabolism Research Program. But with a new, five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging, she has no plans to stop asking those head-scratchers. “Research is a puzzle,” she says. “As you put together more pieces, more questions arise, and you have to follow where they lead.”