December 20, 2021

He worked to find a way

Remembering U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson

We at GRA have been reading this morning’s tributes to the late Sen. Johnny Isakson, who died yesterday after battling Parkinson’s Disease. The words of praise describe a true public servant, a man who was courageous, courteous and considerate, dedicated to making the world better.

To these qualities we would add one more: Dogged determination.

From securing passage of the 25 Senate bills he sponsored to influencing countless pieces of legislation that cleared the Georgia General Assembly, Sen. Isakson was perseverance personified. He always worked to find a way.

In that regard, he shared something in common with the intrepid researchers at Georgia’s universities, for whom he had great respect. Like them, Sen. Isakson understood the value of incremental gains in pursuit of solutions to problems. To borrow from football, betterment was not just the long pass downfield. It most often came from measured yardage gained, again and again.

He also appreciated the strength of alliances. His philosophy – widely celebrated today – was that “there are only two kinds of people in this world, friends and future friends.” Making friends and keeping them added to his tenacity. It helped him bridge divides and get results. 

At a dinner one fall evening in 2015, we honored Sen. Isakson with the GRA Legacy Award. A quarter-century earlier, he had been all-in on GRA: As a candidate for governor of Georgia, he had enthusiastically expressed his support of forming the Georgia Research Alliance, as did his opponent in the race, Lt. Gov. Zell Miller.

In bestowing the GRA Legacy Award, then-Chair Doug Hertz remarked:

“Johnny Isakson has been at the table since the very beginning and has distinguished himself as among the most ardent, courageous and consistent advocates for Georgia’s research universities and the Georgia Research Alliance since its inception in 1990. As a businessman, candidate, state legislator, Congressman and now United States Senator, he tirelessly promotes Georgia higher education and our research enterprise every chance he gets, both at home and around the globe.”

Sen. Isakson’s championing of such exploration never waned. 

Upon retiring from the U.S. Senate in 2019, he founded an effort to raise “awareness and funding for research related to neurocognitive diseases.” The Isakson Initiative, with support from private donors, Gov. Brian Kemp and the Georgia General Assembly, led to the establishment of a new chair at the University of Georgia – the John H. “Johnny” Isakson Chair and GRA Eminent Scholar.

Last summer, the acclaimed neuroscientist Anu Kanthasamy moved his research program from Iowa State to UGA to occupy that chair. In recruiting him, UGA made a bold new contribution in the fight against Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. In his research, Kanthasamy had discovered clues as to why certain proteins “misfold” to bring on brain inflammation, which damages neurons that lead to Parkinson’s. The findings of his investigations influence the cause, diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

Kanthasamy brought colleagues with him, calling the move “a nice fit” for his team, given that UGA has a solid critical mass of researchers working in neuroscience, pharmacology and drug development. “This helps my group expand the translational work, taking the basic science and then translating it to treatments or diagnostic markers for neurological diseases.”

It’s a collaborative, determined mindset, one that reflects the approach of the man for whom his chair is named. Together – one in practice, one now in spirit – they are working to find a way.