Gemma Casadesus Smith had one last errand to do before Cleveland’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s on Sept. 25: a stop at Kinko’s for giant stickers saying "I’m walking in honor of Mark A. Smith."
Maybe her team – including her two young sons -- would plaster them on their chests or backs in honor of their father, she mused to herself.
Mark Smith, Casadesus Smith’s husband, was struck and killed by a car on Dec. 19.
Although her husband had been a world-renowned Alzheimer’s investigator and prolific writer of scientific papers, he had always taken time to lead a team of research colleagues in the Alzheimer Foundation’s annual fundraising walk. Despite her fresh grief, Casadesus Smith, herself a prominent Alzheimer’s researcher, decided to pull together a team of researchers, principal investigators and students to continue the tradition in this year’s event.
"I find comfort in continuing his memory this way, and remembering what a great guy he was," she said.
The group raised $11,700 in pledges to become the top fundraisers in this year’s walk.
Both she and her late husband, faculty members at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, launched their first research projects with grants from the Alzheimer’s Foundation.
"The walk kind of closes the loop," she said.
Lynn Landmesser, chair of Case’s neurosciences department, wasn’t surprised when Casadesus Smith took on the task.
"She manages everything," she said. "Those of us in the department are in awe of what she’s been able to achieve despite the challenges she’s faced."
Casadesus Smith’s research focuses on how age-related changes in metabolic and reproductive hormones affect cognition.
I want to understand why some brains age normally and why some take that funny turn," she said.
She also initiated and developed the Case Rodent Behavior Core, a facility that conducts state-of-the-art behavioral testing for investigators at Case and other local institutions. She is also director of the facility.
"She has a lot of initiative," Landmesser said. "We had little behavioral expertise on campus until she got here."
Casadesus Smith, an assistant professor of neurosciences, began showing that initiative when she was a schoolgirl in a small village outside Barcelona, Spain.
"I was always doing my social studies papers on the States," she said, an interest that grew into a determination to go to college in the U.S. Her father wished otherwise, but she persisted. He proposed a deal.
"My father said I could apply to just one college in the U.S., and if I were accepted, I could go," she recalled, her eyes creasing with one of her frequent smiles. "If not, he wanted me to study economics in England and then join the family business."
She applied to Tufts University in Boston and, to her great joy, was accepted.
"I'd be a pig farmer if not for Tufts," she said, laughing.
She began her studies in 1992. She met Mark Smith, who was British by birth, when she went to case to learn biochemistry technique in his laboratory at Case.
When Smith picked her up at the airport, she said, her jaw dropped in surprise.
"I was expecting a 50-year-old, and there he was all sweaty from a soccer game, driving a yellow MG with a furry dog in the front seat."
After completing her work in Cleveland, she went to Barcelona for a year to do research then returned to Tufts to finish her doctorate. There she was mentored by Dr. Jim Joseph, director of the Neuroscience Laboratory, USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University -- "the man about antioxidants," she said. "All the PR on blueberries came out of our lab."
Ph.D. in hand, Casadesus Smith returned to Cleveland, and married Smith a year and a half later.
"We were soul mates," she said. "Everybody saw that. No one could put up with him but me, and no one could put up with me but him.”
Her admiration for him is boundless.
"He was a genius," she said "He lived 85 years in 45, working at the speed of light."
His work included 800 peer-reviewed articles about Alzheimer’s disease.
"I’d tell him, ‘Dude, stop and smell the roses.’ When he passed, I understood he had a lot to do.”
As she sipped her coffee at a Starbucks near Kinko’s, she said: "I feel good talking about him. If I didn’t have his children, I wouldn’t be like this. But I have him in them. Mark is still alive in our hearts."