Brain Building

The UW School of Pharmacy has recently announced the creation of a new professorship — the Apinis Professorship. The faculty members who hold it will carry forward a deep family legacy.

In 1950, when John Janis Apinis and his wife, Anna, came to America from their native Latvia, they brought their intelligence, devotion to hard work, two suitcases, and two children, Rasma and John. But they couldn’t bring their pharmacy business. Their degrees, earned in Riga before the Second World War, weren’t recognized in the United States.

Fortunately for the Apinis family, they landed in Madison. After Janis worked his way through the University of Wisconsin’s School of Pharmacy, he launched a career in the Madison General Hospital, while Anna took a job in the lab of UW researcher Fred Mohs. Their devotion to education helped to reestablish the family’s fortunes.

“They did the best they could with the cards they were dealt,” says their son John Apinis, “never complained, never asked for a handout, never had much money for themselves, but got my sister and me through PhD programs and the University of Michigan and Ohio State University, respectively.”

Both Janis and Anna were born in the early 1900s. They attended college in Riga, and Anna worked in a town pharmacy while Janis directed Latvia’s main drug manufacturing facility. The outbreak of World War II shattered their peaceful lives, as their homeland was invaded by the Soviets, Germans, and Soviets again. They fled at the end of the war, bounding across Europe until landing in the United States.

Without their educational credentials, Janis had to take a job packing boxes in a Madison warehouse, while Anna cleaned homes. In his 40s, Janis enrolled at the UW and graduated in 1954, just 10 years before his son, John, earned a UW undergraduate degree.

This year, John Apinis and his wife, Inara, honored Janis and Anna by donating to fund the Janis Apinis Professorship in the UW’s School of Pharmacy. The first person to hold that position is Lingjun Li, a member of the UW-Madison faculty since 2002 and one of the leading researchers in the field of neurochemistry.

Li is a graduate of Beijing Polytechnic and of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She’s been a member of the UW-Madison faculty since 2002 and holds numerous honors, including a coveted Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professorship. Her lab focuses on using the tools of mass spectrometry to investigate neurotransmitters and especially neuropeptides, which she describes as “the most complex and elusive set of signaling molecules.” In 2016, she and colleagues Josh Coon and Dave Pagliarini established a National Center for Quantitative Biology of Complex Systems, in which she leads projects focusing on the development of novel chemical tags for high throughput proteomics. The center’s goal is to accelerate the pace of study in human disease diagnosis, mechanistic investigation, and systems biology.