Remembering Sam Sanderson, Ph.D.

by Kalani Simpson, UNMC public relations | August 10, 2017

Image with caption: Sam Sanderson, Ph.D.

Sam Sanderson, Ph.D.

Sam Sanderson, Ph.D., an exuberant scientist who for 27 years worked at the med center, died Monday at age 63.

Dr. Sanderson, a familiar figure across the Omaha campus, was known for making an impression on all who crossed his path.

Services for Sam Sanderson, Ph.D.

  • Visitation 5-7 p.m.Friday, Aug. 11; vigil at 7 p.m. at St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church, 16701 S St., Omaha.
  • Service 10 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 12, at St. Stephen the Martyr

"You could always hear him coming down the hallway," said Jonathan Vennerstrom, Ph.D. "His infectious laughter brightened the day for many of us.

"Sam exuded enthusiasm about his projects and about life," Dr. Vennerstrom said.

"He was like a brother to me," said Joseph Vetro, Ph.D.

"Or an uncle," Dr. Vetro decided, laughing one more time at an inside joke with his friend.

Their kinship was close, but not unusual.

"All of Sam's collaborators became his friends," said Paul Davis, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at UNO. "For him, there was no distinction."

Dr. Sanderson and his collaborators had made a significant discovery -- an immune stimulating peptide called EP67, a "platform technology." The synthetic peptide works by stimulating and enhancing a more robust natural immune response to normal and resistant infections, and potentially other ailments such as cancer.

But there's often a decades-long chasm between making a discovery and that discovery making a difference in human lives. Dr. Sanderson sought to shorten that period by founding Prommune, Inc., in hopes industry might step in to help move the research forward to translation. He often worked closely with UNeMed, UNMC's technology transfer arm.

He never got to see his research reach the finish line. But he never stopped reaching for that goal.

picture disc.
Sam Sanderson, Ph.D., at right, at a recent dinner out with research colleagues and friends Steve Curran, left, and Joseph Vetro, Ph.D., center.
"Sam believed in himself and his science when others did not," said Todd Wyatt, Ph.D. "It was his unyielding enthusiasm and drive that resulted in all his recent deserved successes in research."

After years of working toward his next breakthrough, Dr. Sanderson recently had earned a $2.25 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health. He also teamed with Dr. Vetro on another significant R01 grant.

"Yet, it was clear that Sam's highest priority was always his family," Dr. Davis said. "He prioritized them by spending time with them and spoke often of them."

Dr. Sanderson is survived by his wife, Anna; son Scott and his wife Annie and their two children; and son Brian and his wife Shelby.

Those who wish to memorialize Dr. Sanderson can donate to St. Stephen the Martyr music ministry in his honor, his family said.

Tom Caffrey
August 29, 2017 at 7:04 AM

I am so sorry to hear of your loss. In 30 years at UNMC, I have never met a more genuine, kind, and approachable professor than Sam. He will be greatly missed. Please take comfort in knowing the brilliance of a shooting star is enjoyed mere fleeting seconds, yet its light endures forever. Sam's light shines brightly. Rest in peace, my friend.

Wieslaw Kazmierski
August 16, 2017 at 8:47 AM

Sam and I overlapped during his postdoc at the U of Arizona. He was a very good colleague, easygoing, personable, down to earth. I am happy to see that he went on to such an illustrious academic career. You will be missed Sam. My heartfelt condolences to his family. Wieslaw Kazmierski

Diane Galloway
August 15, 2017 at 11:21 AM

Sam was my childhood friend from the time we were toddlers. Our mothers have been best friends for at least 63 years (they are still trying to figure out just how many). We called each other's mother "aunt". And we believed their story that Coke turns your knees black and that's why we couldn't have any. Oh, and least we not forget that Flint, the German Shorthair, was the official babysitter. Both our mothers lament, "oh you two were soooo cute together! " I know that Sam always made it a point to go by mothers and see "Aunt Roxie" My how my mother loved all three of the Sanderson boys but she had an affinity for Sam because he was so sweet to go visit her. Fast forward years ahead and I found out about his nicotine and methamphetamine studies on the brain. I invited him to come to Wyoming and present/teach the Governor's Advisory Board on Substance Abuse. He was just awesome! What an honor for me to 'lay claim' to my childhood partner. His wit and charm and infectious passion for his field impressed everyone What a loss and a sadness to lose a truly amazing guy. I have no doubt that his pioneering work will be the landmark of many more advances. My heart goes out to all his family. Diane Galloway

Cindy Gilchrist, PhD
August 12, 2017 at 6:49 PM

Sam gave me some amazing advice about following my heart rather than what others expected of me. He was a Good Soul and always made me laugh. My deepest condolences to his family. Sending my love to speed you on your way, Sam!

Chantey Morris
August 12, 2017 at 9:26 AM

I have known Sam for 17 years and wish I had more time with him. He was a mentor from day one. He was available for conversion that would lead to new ideas. His loss will be greatly felt by many. Chantey Morris, Ph.D

Carla Troutman
August 11, 2017 at 1:24 PM

When you talked to Sam, you had his undivided attention! Once you met him, he was a friend forever. I always watched for him whenever I had a reason to be on campus. I know that he adored his wife and kids. I will really miss him and his mischievous grin. Rest In Peace, my friend.

Marcia Hess Smith
August 11, 2017 at 7:19 AM

A truly genuine person, friend, and larger than life personality whose energy and optimism was contagious. A brilliant scientist and devoted family man. What a huge loss. I will miss him greatly.

Steve Taylor
August 10, 2017 at 11:24 PM

I was one of the lucky ones. I met Sam in 1989, when we both joined Immunetech Pharmaceuticals in San Diego. Sam was fresh from his post-doc with Victor Hruby. We hit it off immediately- who didn’t hit it off with Sam, immediately?, and started working on C5a peptides. I can still remember the moment, when he walked into my office, and I had just squirted his first C5a peptide (C5a 1-22 for devotees) on to a little bit of guinea-pig ileum (yes, in my office), and it nearly leapt out of the room in response, and I pompously announced….”Sam, this is our meal ticket”. True story. Strangely, it was. He made them, I assayed them, and in that little crucible, we made the first proof-of-principle observations that led to our ongoing work for the next 25 years. Naturally, we were “let go” for our efforts. I still have the (rejected) internal project proposal we wrote then, and it stands the test of time- including the principle of cyclisation (Sam’s idea), and this led to our ongoing collaboration over the next two decades. And yes, we were piqued by our treatment- it was our first firing…. He went to UMNC, I limped off to UQ in Brisbane- and we FAXED incessantly- I had literally hundreds of long, detailed discussions of our results and design plans (before email!- now we are going back). He shipped me peptides to Australia, I assayed them, and we eventually prevailed. Sam and I published many papers together over the succeeding years, and I sabaticalled at Eppley 20 years ago. Sam was an utterly decent person. Full of self-deprecating wit and humour. I never realised- until this shocking news, that my times with Sam were always filled with fun and laughter. I was always happy to be around him, because he was an infectious personality and endlessly enthusiastic about research. That he finally conquered the decriers of the NIH would have given him enormous satisfaction. Vale Sam. We are proud to have been your friend. Steve Taylor

August 10, 2017 at 9:18 PM

Sam is an incredible human being and scientist. I had the opportunity to work closely with him for over 5 years. The enthusiasm and passion he had were infectious. He was always upbeat about life despite the difficulties. He always had a great story to share. I will miss him forever.

Pat Wortmann
August 10, 2017 at 2:35 PM

A chance encounter with Dr. Sanderson in the hallway, always left you feeling like you were his best friend. Never short on stories (for me, about his time working in Shackleford Hall), or opinions (for me, his disdain for the regulations I wanted him to follow). He was a unique personality and will be truly missed.

Tammy Kielian
August 10, 2017 at 2:15 PM

Sam was a go-getter and good friend. We had been collaborating for the past 5 years and he was one of the most passionate, energetic people I have ever known. Sam never gave up on his passion for Prommune, even when things were difficult. We would often talk about getting into the "mosh pit" to get things done and he was an eternal optimist. I will miss him.

Larisa Poluektova
August 10, 2017 at 1:35 PM

It is a big loss and I will never forget his "privet" and "kak dela". Sam was great collaborator and ready to help all the time when was asked. It was a pleasure to discuss with him science and above.

Tom O'Connor
August 10, 2017 at 11:19 AM

Sam was one special dude. It was impossible not to like Sam. He had instant likeability. What a huge loss for our campus.

Toni Harris
August 10, 2017 at 10:54 AM

Dr. Sanderson was such a special person and will truly be missed here at UNMC. He never forgot a face and always made time to visit with you when he would see you in the hall. His high energy and upbeat personality was infectious. Thoughts and prayers to his family.

Mike Berney
August 10, 2017 at 9:28 AM

I have known Sam for years! I will miss Sam and his positive demeanor and attitude . He always had something positive to say . He was an inspiration to many. My thoughts and prayers go out to his Family.

Jack P Swanson
August 10, 2017 at 9:22 AM

Sam was my friend. I will miss him. Understood how the world really works and had a sense of humor about it.

Elli Rogan
August 10, 2017 at 9:14 AM

Sam was larger than life. I knew him from the day he arrived at UNMC and had the fun of serving on the Ph.D. committees of his outstanding grad students. We shared a lot of ups and downs and a commitment to conducting the best research possible. It's hard to imagine not talking with him again.

Yazen Alnouti
August 10, 2017 at 9:13 AM

Everybody who knew Sam will definitely miss him. He was one of the most energetic, passionate, and pleasant scientists and human beings I have ever known. I will surely miss my casual meetings with Sam in the hallway, where it usually ended with a loud laughter and some kind of a joke.

Jill Poole, MD
August 10, 2017 at 8:32 AM

Sam, with his booming personality, was always fun to chat with as he ran across campus. I had the pleasure of working with him on an innovative research project, and he was always energetic, committed, and helpful. His passion and strong commitment to research was unmatched. He will be greatly missed.

Jered Garrison
August 10, 2017 at 8:28 AM

I met Sam when I first arrived at UNMC in 2009. Our laboratories were next to one another and we had a common scientific interest in peptide chemistry. We got to know each other well over the years. He was a great scientist, but an even better person. While I will miss him, I will always admire and remember his compassion, commitment to family, drive and vitality.

Traci Clemons
August 10, 2017 at 8:03 AM

I met Sam in 1989 on the 3rd floor of Eppley Institute. He befriended me immediately and has been a friend since then. He was definitely known for his excitement about his research and even though he hit some roadblocks he refused to give up. He will be dearly missed by many. Thoughts and Prayers to his family during this difficult time. Traci Clemons

Vivian Capurro
August 10, 2017 at 8:02 AM

I had the pleasure of working with Sam on his R01 and submitting the endless request to the NIH to get the NOA issued. I even had memorized his cell phone number we spoke so much those few weeks! I never minded though because I would always feel energized after just a quick conversation. Sam will be missed by many.

Elaine Payne
August 10, 2017 at 7:38 AM

I will miss his booming voice that could be heard minutes before he reached my office. RIP Sam!

Howard E. Gendelman, M.D., Chairman Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience
August 10, 2017 at 3:45 AM

One of the very best scientists and human beings I have come to know, respect and admire; a very big loss here at UNMC and for mankind.