In Memoriam: Chad Dickey, PhD

USF Health neuroscientist Chad Dickey, PhD — a leading NIH-funded researcher in the Morsani College of Medicine who developed an international reputation seeking answers to some of the most fundamental questions about neurodegenerative disorders, particularly Alzheimer’s disease – died Nov. 25, after a courageous battle with cancer.  He was 40.

“Many of us were truly privileged to work with Dr. Dickey, who was a brilliant neuroscientist bursting with creativity and a passion for discovery and scientific collaboration,” said Charles J. Lockwood, senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine. “He accomplished more in a decade than most investigators achieve in far longer tenure.

“We honor the outstanding scientific legacy Chad has left for us to build upon. He will be greatly missed, and his memory will live on in his many discoveries.”

Dr. Chad Dickey and team at the Bryd Alzheimer's Institute

Dr. Dickey was an associate professor of molecular medicine and psychiatry and a research scientist at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

While his impact on the field of neurosciences reached worldwide, his roots were planted firmly at the University of South Florida.  A Tampa native, he obtained both his bachelor’s degree in microbiology and PhD in pharmacology and neuroscience from USF. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, he returned to USF as a faculty member in 2006.

Dr. Dickey’s early work was as a member of a team that determined a vaccine may be a useful approach to treating Alzheimer’s disease.  He was the first to find that proteins involved in learning and memory were selectively impaired in mouse models of Alzheimer’s.

Much of his recent NIH-supported work focused on defects in the removal of damaged proteins by cells. Dr. Dickey’s promising studies of the key role “chaperone proteins” play in brain cell function were originally directed at Alzheimer’s disease, but subsequently expanded to other disorders ranging from glaucoma to depression to preterm birth. He wanted to find drugs to reverse defects leading to the buildup of harmful substances in the brain known as “tau tangles,” which are linked to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease — and he made considerable progress in that quest.

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Dr. Dickey worked with Dave Morgan, PhD, for all but two of the last 17 years.

“He was a PhD student, research associate and research assistant professor in our laboratory. And for the last seven years he was a star faculty member in the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute and Department of Molecular Medicine,” said Dr. Morgan, Distinguished USF Health Professor and CEO of the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute.  “Thus, his loss is especially personal to me.”

Over his academic career, Dr. Dickey received 20 grants totaling more than $15 million from the NIH, Alzheimer’s Association and other organizations and published 65 scientific papers cited more than 4,000 times by other researchers.

“Equally important, Chad has trained an impressive group of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom have gone on to successful biomedical research careers and will carry on his legacy,” said Robert Deschenes, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Medicine.

Many colleagues and students have expressed an outpouring of sympathy and sadness upon learning of Dr. Dickey’s passing.

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Edwin Weeber, PhD, a professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology and chief scientific officer at the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute, admired his friend and colleague’s unflagging collaborative approach as a lead investigator.

“What I remember most about Chad was his constant smile, morning, noon and night. He was always in a pleasant mood, and his door was open to everyone,” Dr. Weeber said.  “Regardless of whether he was under the pressure of a grant deadline or preparing for a lecture, he always made time for you, even if it was just to chat.  Beyond his scientific acumen, he found a way to successfully balance the rigors of being a friend and colleague, a husband and father, and a scientist.”

Former doctoral student John O’Leary said Dr. Dickey helped him grow into a professional when he entered his lab at age 23 — supporting him through difficult times, and accepting his ultimate decision to leave academic science to become a jazz musician.

“He taught me how to work hard, and what it meant to have drive and passion. Once I was having a bad day and decided to escape the lab for a bit, and Chad found me eating a six pack of donuts in my black Yaris, in the parking lot of the Byrd at 11 am; I was so embarrassed. Although, he didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to. I knew his expectations for me were high,” O’Leary said.

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“He pushed me to go beyond my comfort zone and continually challenged me in my learning as a scientist, a speaker, a thinker, a doer,” O’Leary said. “However, he was equally goofy as he was intense. One of my favorite memories is of him rapping Coolio’s “Gangsters Paradise” while doing bench work.”

Jose Abisambra, PhD, a former postdoctoral scholar in Dr. Dickey’s laboratory, now an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, said that as a mentor Dr. Dickey led by example.

“During late nights, we would sometimes find him in his office writing a grant. Despite being so young, Dr. Dickey offered wise advice from overcoming challenges in the lab and in life; I learned how to successfully balance a family and an exceptional career,” Dr. Abisambra said.

“After completing my postdoctoral training in his lab, I founded my own research group, and our success is based on the tenants of impeccable work ethic, creativity, collaboration, and gratefulness, which I learned from him… He profoundly impacted my life as a scientist and as a person. I am certain that all of us who were fortunate to have trained with Chad will strive to carry out his legacy both in and out of the lab.”

Visitation will take place 10 a.m., Friday, Dec. 2, followed by a memorial service at 11 am, all at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz.  In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Dickey Education Fund to aid in the future education costs of Chad and his wife Adria’s two sons. For more information, please visit: https://www.youcaring.com/adrialukeandjakedickey-701981

For the obituary and guest book, click here.

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Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications