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A new award at IU School of Medicine makes a community curious to learn more about the man behind it all, who inspired friends and colleagues for years.

The man behind the award

Each year, dozens of honors and awards are given to faculty, staff and trainees at Indiana University School of Medicine. Some are meant to hone in on the expertise that enables innovative research while others reflect the dedication of years of service. Recently, the Center for Neuroimaging (CfN) announced the inaugural recipients of a new award named after a colleague and friend who transformed all who knew and worked with him. 

John West wasn’t just a physically tall person—his attributes never ceased to grow in height. West was the principal systems analyst and neuroimaging research collaborator for the CfN and the Indiana Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (IADRC) at IU School of Medicine. He arrived at the school in 2006, alongside Andrew Saykin, PsyD, director of the IADRC and the CfN.

“He began working with me as a graduate student in engineering at the Thayer School at Dartmouth College,” said Saykin. “A senior professor sent this very tall fellow over to our lab with a bucket of sponges.” Over the years, colleagues, like Saykin, grew incredibly close to West, and each and every person who worked with him was able to witness the innumerable contributions he brought to research programs at the school. Not only did he help make the centers invaluable places for research in Indiana, but he also added to their overall comradery and team spirit. Whether someone needed a listening ear or help on a project at the 11th hour, West always came flying in with an eager smile. 

“If you were looking for John, you just needed to listen for a minute, then head in the direction of the laughter,” said Brenna McDonald, PsyD, professor of radiology and imaging sciences.

Sadly, in October 2020, West unexpectedly passed away, four people sitting at a table outside at a restaurant leaving behind big shoes seemingly impossible to fill. Since his untimely departure, dozens of friends, family and colleagues have spent months mourning him, but also finding ways to keep his spirit alive. Shortly after his death, the John West Memorial Fund was established, which has brought in more than $6,300. As a result, the CfN established the John D. West Scholar Award, which provides center trainees and staff with funds for academic/ professional development and activities. Strong candidates for the award ideally demonstrate a commitment to academic and research excellence, intellectual curiosity, a collaborative mindset, and compassion, a true reflection of the great qualities that made West a valued colleague and friend.  

“He was one of the nicest, most caring individuals that I’ve ever known and was always willing to listen and help. I will continue to miss him terribly. It feels like a hole in my life that cannot ever be refilled,” said Shannon Risacher, PhD, associate professor of radiology and imaging sciences.

Last week, Saykin announced the first recipients of West’s award: Yolanda Graham-Dotson and Matt Tharp. Saykin mentioned how Yolanda and Matt exemplify West’s spirit of collaboration, service and generosity in assisting others. From Yolanda’s many years of commitment as a clinical research coordinator to Matt’s efforts as a biomedical engineer whom West trained, supervised and mentored—both reflect West’s values, spirit, skills and commitment. 

As more recipients continue to receive this award, a plaque will be added in the Neurovisualization Lab at Goodman Hall. Born from West’s imagination, the lab is an excellent space for faculty, staff and trainees to not only bring their research and data to life, but to honor the profound life of John West. His shoes might never be filled, but maybe his memory will help all who knew him grow just as tall.
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Sonder Collins

Communications Manager

Having joined IU School of Medicine in 2016, Sonder uses a poetry and theatre background to bridge the academic world with the creative. A graduate of University of Evansville, he works with faculty, staff and trainees to create unique marketing ideas that connect the public to research, education and clinical initiatives taking place at IU School of Medicine. From writing stories on groundbreaking equipment to orchestrating digital marketing strategies, Sonder collaborates with experts across the school to help departments thrive in their marketing and communication ambitions. His specific area of focus is the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences and the Indiana Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.