President Emeritus

William Barlow Neaves Ph.D.

The Graduate School of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research
President Emeritus    
Stowers Institute for Medical Research

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

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When William Neaves, Ph.D., retired as Stowers’ President and Chief Executive Officer in 2010, he embarked on what he calls a “geriatric postdoc,” studying how some lizard species thrive without sexual reproduction.

Neaves began those studies 40 years ago as a graduate student but got side-tracked by two illustrious careers—the first spanning almost 30 years at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and the second lasting a decade as Stowers top executive.  

The parthenogenetic species Aspidoscelis neomexicana (center) arose from a pairing between a male A. inornata (bottom) and a female A. tigris (top).

Image: Courtesy of Dr. William B. Neaves

Born on Christmas day of 1943 in Spur, Texas (population 1088 as of 2010), Neaves was raised on his parents’ wheat and cattle farm outside of town. One of 24 members of the Spur High School class of ’62, Neaves thought he’d grow up to be a wheat farmer, attorney or physician.

Driven to the latter by a love of natural science (and his parents’ hope that he might become Spur’s physician), Neaves attended Harvard and received the A.B. magna cum laude with highest honors in Biology in 1966 and earned a Ph.D. in Anatomy in 1970. Neaves found the shock of moving from Spur to Boston intense but liberating. “At Harvard it was wonderful to be just one of hundreds of people interested in literature and learning,” he recalls.

Sharing those interests was Neaves’ wife Priscilla, whom he met in Spur as a second grader and married in 1965. “She and I were notorious bookworms,” says Neaves. “Our first date in junior high was to a monthly bookmobile visit to Spur.”

Although Neaves attended medical school at Harvard, in the late 60’s he became drawn to research, in part by fascination with how all-female reptiles reproduce asexually—a process known as parthenogenesis. Encouraged by Don Fawcett, a pioneer electron microscopist and Harvard cell biologist, Neaves switched from medical to graduate school and wrote his thesis on lizard evolution and reproductive biology. In studies published at that time he used molecular tools to identify the sexual species that hybridized to produce all-female whiptail lizards.  

As a postdoc, Neaves took a detour into mammalian reproduction while serving as a Lecturer in Veterinary Anatomy at The University of Nairobi. “Fawcett encouraged me to ‘waste’ two years exploring the rich Pleistocene fauna of Kenya,” says Neaves. During his time in Kenya he conducted comparative studies of reproductive systems in species as diverse as male impala and rock hyraxes, supported by a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship.

Oocyte nuclei isolated from Aspidoscelis tesselata (one shown above) revealed that asexually reproducing lizards enter the reproductive process with twice the number of chromomes compared to their sexually reproducing cousins. Even without fertilization these eggs result in lizards with a full complement of chromosomes.

Image: Courtesy of Dr. William B. Neaves

In 1972, following a brief stint as lecturer back at Harvard, Neaves became assistant professor of cell biology at UT Southwestern, where he undertook endocrinology research and directed the anatomy teaching program from 1975 to 1978, attaining full professorship in 1977. In 1983, he received the Young Andrologist Award of the American Society of Andrology (the male equivalent of Gynecology) and in 1991 was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in recognition of his work on steroid hormones.

Neaves took on administrative duties in 1980 when he was named Dean of Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences followed by appointment as Dean of the Medical School in 1986 and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1998. He held the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science during his last decade at UT Southwestern and by then was recognized for his role in building a stellar research program between the two coasts.

“By the end of 1994 Southwestern had nine members of the National Academy of Sciences, eight fellows of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and four Nobel laureates—without ever recruiting one,” says Neaves. “All of us took satisfaction in showing colleagues on the east and west coasts that we could do things equally well in Dallas.”

Those qualities caught the attention of Jim Stowers, who asked to visit Neaves in 1998 to learn how to recruit the best scientists to a fledgling research biomedical institute in Kansas City. Previously, Stowers had been approached by a California academic who advised him that he ought to create his institute in Palo Alto rather than Kansas City. “This person told Jim, ‘If you are determined to make this mistake, go to Dallas and see how they built science in an unlikely place,’” says Neaves.

The collegiality fostered by Neaves at Southwestern also meshed nicely with Stowers’ philosophy of creating an environment where people and their research can flourish. Stowers invited Neaves to become a Stowers advisor and by 2000 Neaves, with the mission to recruit world-class scientists to the heartland, moved to Kansas City to become Stowers’ President and CEO.

When Neaves arrived, four faculty members had been recruited and Scientific Director Robb Krumlauf was on his way. “Robb’s willingness to join us was so significant,” says Neaves. “He is one of the best colleagues I’ve ever had—open, motivated, a person who wants everyone to succeed.” Neaves and Krumlauf teamed up to apply rigorous good citizenship standards to any potential recruit. “We called it our anti-prima donna screen,” says Neaves.

But collegiality got one only so far. Neaves imposed extremely rigorous scientific standards, driven in part by his admiration for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which he calls the “gold-standard of basic research.” Early on, Neaves reconfigured the Stowers’ scientific advisory board and then charged them “to put your reputations on the line and do not consider any recruit if even one of you doubts that person could qualify for a Hughes appointment.”

Setting the bar high paid off. During Neaves’ tenure the faculty grew to 20 investigators and today includes seven fellows of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, two HHMI investigators and two members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Named Stowers President Emeritus in 2010, Neaves still teaches and writes but seems happiest to have returned to his lizards while “postdoc’ing” with Investigator Peter Baumann. Graduate Student Aracely Lutes, Neaves, Baumann, and colleagues published a 2011 PNAS paper in which they created a novel parthenogenic species from male and female lizards of different ploidy, suggesting a mechanism for evolution of unisexual species. And in a 2010 Nature paper the group solved a fundamental molecular question of how lizards reproduce asexually while retaining genetic variation inherent in their hybrid origin.

“We are now on the trail of identifying the mutation that enables asexual reproduction in these lizards,” says Neaves, exuding the enthusiasm of a young investigator at age 69. “I never dreamed I could get back to these questions after 40-plus years.”