2014 Blue Bird Circle Award

Steve Leber

Profile written by Phillip L. Pearl, MD


Steven M Leber, MD, PhD

Though born in Cleveland, in the land of the Buckeyes, Steve Leber quickly saw the light and was converted to a Wolverine, going to college at the University of Michigan. (He did, however, have to go home every Thanksgiving and, reluctantly, face up to his friends, since Michigan never beat Ohio State in football during his four years of college.) Academically, he started off studying math and physics but became fascinated by brain research when he bought a popular book, The Brain Changers, by Maya Pines, for his father’s birthday, but decided to read it before giving it to him. He worked in Steve Easter’s lab, studying goldfish visual development, and became fascinated with brain development.

Although he never had had any interest in becoming a doctor (perhaps because his mother wanted him to be one), he completed a combined MD-PhD degree in an effort to learn a broad range of approaches to studying brain development. He attended the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, where he was surprised to enjoy the clinical work as well as the research. In the lab, he worked with Pat Model, studying synaptic specificity on the Mauthner cell of the axolotl, a newt-like amphibian famous for populating the margins of Mad Magazine. By transplanting the otic placode between embryos of various ages and causing the VIIIth nerve to enter the brain earlier or later than normal, he showed that the vestibular axons terminated on particular dendrites of the Mauthner cells independent of their time of ingrowth. He thoroughly enjoyed both his pediatrics and neurology rotations, and decided to go into pediatric neurology, although he never did a rotation in this field. (He did spend a single, but remarkable, half-day in clinic with Al Spiro. Two new patients walked in off the street, one with hypokalemic periodic paralysis and one with hyperkalemic periodic paralysis!) In his free time, he was the hooker on the Einstein rugby team in an inter-medical school league.

Steve went back to Cleveland to do his pediatrics residency at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital at Case Western Reserve. He then went to St. Louis, where he did his pediatric neurology fellowship at Washington University under the mentorship of Joe Volpe, Arthur Prensky, Phil Dodge, Ed Dodson, Mike Noetzel, Steve Rothman, and Ruthmary Deuel. Steve worked with a superb group of fellows, training concurrently with Ken Mack and Jeff Neil, and under the insightful (and fun) guidance of Gary Clark, Scott Pomeroy, Kel Yamada, Rob Rust, and Denis Altman, among others (photo). During his clinical training, he was proud to learn that the mother of one of his patients decided to name her next child after him, but was surprised to learn that the middle name was actually “Dr. Steven Leber”! He did a post-doc with Josh Sanes, studying the clonal origin of motoneurons and the migration of cells in the chick spinal cord.

Having fallen in love with Ann Arbor as an undergraduate and naively thinking he would have more time when he wasn’t in college, he contacted Gihan Tennekoon, who was about to start as division chief of Pediatric Neurology at the University of Michigan. Steve came on as a faculty member in 1990 and has been at the U of M ever since, working under Gihan and then, for almost 20 years, Faye Silverstein. Although he started off primarily in the lab, Steve found greater success and fulfillment in clinical work and teaching, which have been his areas of focus since. He has won faculty teaching awards in both the Neurology and Pediatrics departments, was the Dickinson Collegiate Professor of Pediatrics, and last year was honored with the Dean’s Outstanding Clinician Award. He is the medical director of both the Pediatric Neurology outpatient clinic and all of the Pediatric Subspecialties clinics. His interests in clinical neurology are broad, but he has special interests in headache, brain malformations, and conversion disorders. He started an institution-wide Conversion Disorder Journal Club and is helping set up a somatoform disorders practice protocol. He provides the fetal neurology consultations and sees the children with multiple sclerosis. His trainees’ words in his nomination letters speak volumes:

“We are very fortunate that Dr. Leber has dedicated his boundless energy to education in pediatric neurology…he continually strives to improve the residency program…in a structured and nurturing environment. We review a post (from the listserve) with a “mystery case,” and examine suggestions from other neurologists.” (Drs. Nancy McNamara and Louis Dang)

“…it is Dr. Leber’s particular style that sets him apart. He guides each trainee in a conversational manner, correcting when necessary in such a way that is never patronizing, but rather increases the trainee’s confidence over time.” (Dr. Jared Mott)

“He effortlessly dedicates his time to guarantee the residents are receiving the best training available and goes out of his way to make this happen.” (Dr. Lindsey Foy)

On a national level, Steve helped launch the CNS Electronic Communication Committee in 1995, and has served on it since, chairing the committee from 1995-99. He also served on the Executive Committees of both the CNS and PCN. He has been involved in the CNS Education Special Interest Group.

In 1993, Steve walked out of a patient’s room (yet again, in his words) uncertain about the diagnosis. He thought of several experts around the country he wanted to call to discuss the patient. Realizing he was not unique in his desire to collaborate with others, he wondered about ways to do this via the computer and talked to Ken Mack, who suggested they try setting up a “listserv,” a new concept in group emailing. (To get a sense of the novelty of this, their initial membership surveys included the question, “Have you ever used the World Wide Web?”). They created the Child-Neuro listserv and advertised it by email, word of mouth, and in journals. Steve and Ken have been running it since, and it is used by about 1200 members from approximately 60 countries to discuss their problem diagnoses, treatment options, educational issues, referral options, “neuro news,” etc. It serves not only a clinical role but as an educational resource for its users.

Steve has been Program Director for the University of Michigan Child Neurology residency since 2009. He serves on the Program Evaluation Committees for Pediatrics and Neurology, the Pediatrics Clinical Competency Committee, and the Pediatrics Student Education Advisory Committee. The number of child neurology residents has doubled under his tenure, and he has coordinated a major change in their rotation schedules. Steve has successfully advocated for their interests during their adult neurology rotations. He meets regularly with the residents for both case-based teaching conferences and for journal clubs and, combining his education and computer interests, has helped the residents (and other faculty members) with the transition to a new electronic medical record system. He feels inspired by his residents, and his contact with them is his favorite part of the job.

On a lighter level, Steve loves to pepper his work rounds with logic puzzles, and he is fascinated by the way children develop a sense of humor. He also hopes to begin to apply hypnosis to his clinical practice.

Steve is married to Dina Shtull, a small business owner and a Jewish educator. She has done volunteer work in Peru, Uganda, and China. Steve has three children and one granddaughter (two by the time of this meeting). His oldest, Ilanit, has a PhD in math and teaches at the college level. She recently moved back to Ann Arbor after three years in Tel Aviv, where her husband was a medical student. Tani is a 3rd-year medical student at the University of Michigan. He was born during Steve’s neurology fellowship and required ECMO. Tani recently had the privilege of working in the lab of Robert Bartlett, who invented ECMO. Leor graduated from Brown, lives in New York, and is working for Uber.