Leslie Gonzalez Rothi, Ph.D., didn’t start her career working with brain-injured patients and stroke victims.
She initially practiced speech therapy with a much different demographic of patients: children who struggled with learning to speak. While she was earning her Ph.D., she began studying language processes in the brain.
“One of the main ways to study that is to look at how a brain that once had language loses that ability based on where in the brain a stroke occurs,” she said. “So, I then turned to stroke to find answers about how the brain supports language and language learning. I hoped one day to apply what I learned from my research to children.”
But Gonzalez Rothi, now the Bob Paul Family professor of neurology and associate chair for academic affairs in the UF College of Medicine’s department of neurology, never returned to her work with kids. The more she studied the effects of stroke, the more she became interested in the topic and the challenges she believed were holding the field back.
After earning her Ph.D. in 1978, Gonzalez Rothi took a clinical job at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center. She continued her research on brain mechanisms and became increasingly convinced that work in the field should have a greater focus on rehabilitation. Gonzalez Rothi also saw that multidisciplinary care and translational research, neither of which were popular in the field when she entered it, were essential to advancing rehabilitation efforts for stroke and other brain injuries.
“I think health care research is best done when it includes the entire spectrum of viewpoints,” she said. “It requires motivation based not solely on wonder at cells and molecules, but also on the reality of living with the problems we study.”
In 1999, Gonzalez Rothi sought funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institutes of Health to establish a center that would fulfill the vision of multidisciplinary care and translational research focused on brain injuries and recovery. The organizations both granted funding, and the Brain Rehabilitation Research Center was born. Gonzalez Rothi became the program director. Since then, the center has received three grants from the VA to support its work
Gonzalez Rothi said the center’s founding and its progress have been possible because of a strong partnership between UF and the VA and good timing, not just good ideas.
“The time was right in the field (for establishing a facility like the BRRC) because our approach was supported by the research that they were doing with basic science,” she said. “There was a need — a huge need. I mean, we’ve gone to war and we are seeing enormous numbers of the signature injuries of war.”
In 2011, Gonzalez Rothi stepped down as the center’s director, but she continues her work in the department of neurology and is excited about her “next chapter,” one that will focus on learning more about biomedical research policy and how it’s formed at the federal level.
“I think good leaders have a lifespan,” she said “I believed that the center was ready to move to its next chapter and I was ready to move to my next career chapter. I have great confidence in the people who will take it to the next level.”