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Seeking brilliance

Leaetta Hough chose to honor her mother, Hazel Hough, by supporting Parkinson's research at the University. (Photo courtesy of Leaetta Hough)

Gift will help attract an innovative Parkinson’s disease researcher

When Leaetta Hough talks about her late mother, Hazel Hough, she emphasizes the courage and grace with which she endured the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease for more than 35 years.

That’s why, when Hough asked her mother what she would like done in her honor after her death, she rejected the idea of having a building named for her in her hometown of Bagley, Minn. Instead, Hazel supported Hough’s proposal to contribute money to Parkinson’s disease research at the University of Minnesota.

The daughter has honored those wishes, recently giving $800,000 to establish an endowed professorship in the Department of Neurology, chaired by Jerrold Vitek, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally renowned neurologist.

Befitting Hazel Hough’s character, the endowment is simply named “Innovative Research in Parkinson’s Disease.” The objective is to encourage others to contribute to the fund, as well. “She would have liked that,” says Hough, who is a nationally recognized industrial/organizational psychologist.

The $800,000 contribution comes from Hough and her late husband, Marvin Dunnette, a University of Minnesota psychology professor whose former students joined with her to fund a distinguished chair in the Department of Psychology in his honor. She is now married to Robert Muschewske, a retired psychologist and management consultant.

Recognizing an effective leader

As president of the Dunnette Group in St. Paul, Hough specializes in identifying, understanding, and measuring the characteristics that enable people to perform their work — especially creative work — effectively.

“I know the importance of individuals in achieving innovative, successful outcomes,” she says. “Individuals who foster creativity and innovation in others are unusual. Dr. Vitek is that kind of person, and I want our gift to make a difference.”

There is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease. Currently available treatments aim to control symptoms through medications or surgery — the focus of Vitek’s team. Working with colleagues from many disciplines, the team conducts research on surgical therapies for Parkinson’s and related diseases.

Vitek himself has done pioneering work on a surgical therapy called deep brain stimulation (DBS), which delivers electrical impulses directly to areas of the brain that control movement. DBS can act as a substitute for, or a complement to, medications — providing some Parkinson’s patients with “peace and calm after a lifetime of unrest and muscle tension,” he says.

Another promising technique for easing Parkinson’s symptoms is optogenetics, a form of gene therapy that uses light to alter brain cell activity.

Finding the right person for the job

The person hired to fill the endowed professorship will be tapped to help Vitek’s team improve these treatments, or even come up with something entirely new. Vitek says Hough’s donation provides a solid base to attract a “brilliant” physician-scientist to his team.

“We want someone who isn’t afraid to try new things, and who cares about people — someone who’s driven by the science of discovery and the passion to make a difference in patients’ lives,” Vitek says. “Leaetta’s gift is a big step toward finding that person.”

By Mary Vitcenda

To learn more about supporting Parkinson’s disease research at the University of Minnesota, contact Tracy Ketchem at 612-625-1906 or

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