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Houk Lecture Honors Leader in Physiology, Introduces New Fellowship Fund

Since joining Northwestern more than 40 years ago, Dr. Houk has had an enormous impact on the medical school’s Department of Physiology and the field of neuroscience as a whole through his leadership, mentorship, and research.

Update: This event and story from early spring 2020 was prior to Dr. Houk’s recent passing on June 11, 2020. Our deepest condolences to his wife, Ninette, and family. If you would like to make a gift in memory of Dr. Houk, his family asks that you please support the graduate fellowship fund in physiology (link below) that carries Dr. Houk’s name. He will be missed by so many.

Make a gift to support the Dr. James Houk Graduate Fellowship in Physiology Fund.

For more information about supporting fellowships at Feinberg, please contact Vic Maurer at or 312-503-2417.

On March 2, students and experts in physiology came together for a seminar and reception honoring James C. Houk, PhD, former chair of the Department of Physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“Our department as it exists today would not be what it is without Jim,” said D. James Surmeier, PhD, current chair and the Nathan Smith Davis Professor of Physiology. “We were able to expand, recruit world renowned faculty, and push the department into the top 10 nationally because of the foundation that Jim built. I came here in 1998 because he had established a scientific program and environment that I wanted to emulate and learn from. So many of us here today are indebted to him and all that he has taught us.”

An accomplished leader, educator, and scientist, Dr. Houk also is a generous donor to the medical school. He and his wife, Ninette, made a bequest this year to establish the Dr. James Houk Graduate Fellowship in Physiology. Their gift will provide funding to outstanding graduate students studying neurophysiology—the physiology of the nervous system—so they can pursue research at Northwestern and train to become part of the next generation of leaders in the field.

"I don’t know how to thank everyone who participated in this Houk Lecture in Motor Control. None of my achievements throughout my career would have been possible without help from my colleagues, students, and family," Dr. Houk shared. "Ninette and I are very pleased to give back to Northwestern and the Department of Physiology by supporting fellows who will continue to innovate and expand our understanding of the nervous system."

Left to right: Dr. Surmeier; Dr. Strick; Dr. Houk; Dr. Nichols; Lee Miller, ’90 PhD, professor of Physiology at Northwestern and leader of the event’s organizing committee; and Dr. Pruszynski.

Dr. Houk joined Northwestern in 1978 as chair of Physiology, a role he held for 23 years. During his illustrious career, he answered fundamental questions about how the human body works and mentored countless trainees, many of whom attended the symposium. After stepping down as chair of Physiology in 2001, Dr. Houk stayed on at the medical school to continue his research, which in recent decades focused on synthesizing insights on the interplay of the basal ganglia, motor cortex, and cerebellum into a theory of voluntary motor control and motor learning. His work has had extensions into Parkinson’s disease and the etiology of schizophrenia, as well as cognitive neuroscience and thinking. He remains on faculty today as a professor of Physiology.

“Jim has had a huge impact on a broad swath of neuroscience, covering the entire range of the nervous system from the spinal cord up to the brain,” said Dr. Surmeier. At the event, Dr. Surmeier shared a 1976 paper on muscle stretch reflexes published by Dr. Houk that has more than 1,000 citations, including in recent scientific publications. “So many of the ideas that Jim introduced are as germane to the scientific discussions that we’re having today as they were when they were originally published.”

The James C. Houk Lecture in Motor Control—the first of what will become an annual event—featured lectures from top investigators in neurophysiology. Attendees heard from T. Richard Nichols, PhD, chair of Applied Physiology and professor of Biological Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Andrew Pruszynski, PhD, the Canada Research Chair in Sensorimotor Neuroscience at Western University in London, Canada; and Peter Strick, PhD, the Thomas Detre Professor and chair of Neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh.