I am so sad to write of the passing of Brenda Crews (obituary). Brenda infused life into biomedical research and biomedical research labs at Vanderbilt for the past 51 years. After graduating from Vanderbilt with a BA in Biology in 1971, she took a job with Stanley Cohen who kindled in her a lifelong love of research by investigating epidermal growth factor. After working with Stan, she held positions with Jim McKanna, Matt Breyer, Leon Cunningham and Peter Gettins before joining my laboratory in 1994.
It was my great good fortune that Brenda chose to work with me when Peter Gettins left for Chicago. She brought instant energy, creativity and optimism to a group made up of graduate students and postdocs from around the country and around the world. She flourished in this diverse environment reaching out to everyone in the lab to help with their science and to make them comfortable at Vanderbilt and in Nashville. She made the lab a fun place to be. At Halloween spiders dangled from our ceilings, personalized easter baskets adorned the break room and lab benches flew flags on July 4. But more than making the lab a fun place to work, Brenda was an antenna for issues that might be bubbling up or labmates who might be struggling.
Brenda was especially caring toward colleagues from abroad and worked hard to make them feel part of our group. She also adopted many of their children and became an auxiliary mother charged with showering them with gifts. I suspect the reason she worked for so many years was to be able to continue recognizing their birthdays and graduations with presents from Nashville. She is probably part of the reason Amazon was successful in its early years.
Brenda co-mingled her lab family with her real family. Her children, Heather and Jonathan, were part of the dinners and activities she sponsored and were honorary members of our group. Brenda loved them both so dearly and was so proud of them and their lovely families. She nurtured them in a way that allowed them to grow as individuals with a clear sense of direction. She had a very strong moral compass and was not afraid to share her feelings.
Everyone in my group and in the Biochemistry department knew Brenda as a kind, caring person and, indeed, she was. But first and foremost, Brenda was a superb scientist. She was a great experimentalist who planned lab work carefully and conducted it meticulously. We frequently talked about what to work on but never on what to do – she figured that out on her own. She was constantly reading the literature looking for the latest methods or concepts on which to base experiments. She would dig deep until she got answers that were convincing; she did not accept superficial explanations and would challenge those who offered them. A result had to be consistent with the data.
Brenda published 64 papers from our laboratory and scanning them provides a tour of all the major themes and experimental methods of our research program. Brenda was fearless experimentally. She did protein purification, enzyme assays, cell imaging, signal transduction, in vivo pharmacology and much more. She managed our lab; she drafted all our animal protocols; she even took on the Oracle Procurement module! In 2004, Brenda received the first ever Laboratory Science Award for Excellence in Basic Research, which is now called the Edward E. Price Award for Basic Research. It was a fitting recognition for a talented individual and a very happy moment for all of us.
Brenda loved everything about Vanderbilt – its intellectual rigor, its commitment to diversity and inclusion and its people, especially its people. She was so proud to be a Vanderbilt graduate.
It is trite to say she will be missed. Brenda Crews was a giant of a person. There will be no replacing her. She touched everyone who ever walked through the doors of my lab with her sensitivity, humor and love. We loved her back.
“On Death” by Khalil Gibran:
“If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond. And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.”
Professor of Biochemistry, Chemistry and Pharmacology
Dean, School of Medicine Basic Sciences
January 19, 2022