COURTESY JUSTINE UNDERHILL Karen Gale poses with her daughter, Justine Underhill (COL ’11), who remembers her for her creativity and passion.
Karen Gale poses with her daughter, Justine Underhill (COL ’11), who remembers her for her creativity and passion.

Karen Gale, a professor of pharmacology and neuroscience at Georgetown for 37 years, lived her life as a mentor to her students, colleagues and daughters, with a devotion to fostering creativity, thinking outside of the box and promoting diversity wherever she went. Gale died Aug. 21 from cancer at a hospital in Washington., D.C. She was 65.

Gale joined the faculty at Georgetown University Medical Center’s department of pharmacology and physiology in 1977, leading a research program that focused on the neuropharmacology of basal ganglia in the brain. Gale’s work allowed her to rise through the ranks of faculty and become a full professor in 1988.

According to her daughter Justine Underhill (COL ’11), Gale’s inspiring commitment to creativity and innovation led to major accomplishments in the lab, care for her students and role as a devoted mother. Underhill said Gale constantly encouraged others to go above and beyond their expectations of themselves, allowing them to reach new levels of understanding and achievement.

“She was a neuroscientist but also an artist and a performer,” Underhill said.  “She went to a high school for music and art so that greatly impacted all of her science and how she raised my sister and I with a love of theater, art and music.”

According to Underhill, Gale’s creativity made her both an excellent teacher and mother.

“She really thought outside the box,” Underhill said. “She had a very different way of thinking and constantly challenging the status quo that extended from her art and her creativity.”

Gale made two pivotal discoveries in the early 1980s, including the substantia nigra pars reticula, a key basal ganglia output nucleus in the brain as well as a highly circumscribed region within piriform cortex, a critical site for seizure initiation.

Her early successes led to her incredible achievements, having published 175 papers and received $10,000,000 in research and training funding over her lifetime. In the last 10 years, Gale focused on researching the effects of anticonvulsant drugs on brain development and has been recognized as an expert in seizure circuitry.

Barry Wolfe, who began working as a professor of pharmacology at Georgetown in 1989, was Gale’s colleague for 25 years. In 1993, they developed the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, a graduate program not operating under a specific department and currently in its 20th year. Gale was the director of the IPN for 9 years and served as the dean of admissions for IPN for the last 10 years of her life.

“In 1994, Karen ran for the election for director of the IPN and won it,” Wolfe said.  “When the results were announced, she hugged me and cried and said, ‘this is my lifetime ambition.’ It really was. She put her all into that program for many years and took it from essentially nothing up to the 14th-ranked program in the country. It was mostly because of her unlimited energy.”

According to Wolfe, Gale showcased her dedication to students and passion for the program during her time as the dean of admissions.

“She would reach out to potential applicants and by the time they came to interview they would realize that this is the place for them. They realized this was a really good place that really cared about students,” Wolfe said.

Patrick Forcelli (GRD ’11), Gale’s former postdoctoral student and colleague said Gale was extremely generous with her time and wholeheartedly devoted herself to her students, guiding them and urging them to reach their full potentials. Forcelli said he looked up to Gale’s mentorship and strengths as a scientist.

“She had such a big picture view of neuroscience and pharmacology,” Forcelli said. “The aspect of her science that always impressed me was that she always went where the data took her, even if she found something surprising.”

According to Forcelli, Gale served as an incredible teacher and mentor to each of her students.

“She was an amazing mentor,” Forcelli said. “Every person we have graduated from the IPN had her as a first contact. Personally, I wouldn’t be where I am without her and I know that is true for many of my science brothers and sisters. We learned so incredibly much from her.”

Gale also spent hours helping students with grants and papers, Forcelli said.

“She was so generous with her time and once she took an interest in somebody, she was 100 percent committed,” Forcelli said. “There was no getting away from it because she was going to care about you. She without a doubt had a huge impact on students, faculty, and everybody that she came in contact with.”

Gale’s passions extended beyond science and teaching; she was also a fierce proponent of women’s rights. Gale helped found Georgetown Women in Medicine, a group that promotes the professional advancement of women faculty at the Georgetown University Medical Center.

“She was incredibly passionate about helping the development of women faculty and underrepresented minority faculty members,” Forcelli said.

Gale also had high hopes to invite more females in neuroscience to campus to speak. University President John J. DeGioia posthumously awarded Gale the President’s Award for Distinguished Scholar-Teachers on Sept. 26, and created “The Karen Gale Memorial Lecture Fund for Women in Neuroscience” to fulfill Gale’s wish.

Underhill said Gale constantly challenged those around her to succeed and improve in new and innovative ways.

“When working with her, you realize there is always another level that you can reach,” Underhill said. “She was always challenging me to go beyond whatever was expected. I was one of her students in that way.”


Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled “basal ganglia” as “basil” ganglia.

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