The thoughtful collaboration between our Co-Trustees, Board of Directors and our Staff guides the implementation of all Foundation grantmaking. Our Board is responsible for setting the Foundation’s strategic direction and vision, for overseeing its finances and operation, and for ensuring the organization is in compliance with all legal requirements. The staff brings a vast range of knowledge and experience with a deep commitment to the spinal cord injury field. Staff is guided by the Foundation’s vision, working proactively to ensure the grants programs reflect the strategies set by the Board as well as the Values set to honor our Founder.
Board of Directors
Co-Trustee and Chairman of the Board
Ray H. Neilsen
Ray Neilsen was appointed as Co-Trustee and Chairman of the Board of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation upon the passing of his father, Craig H. Neilsen in 2006. In these roles, Ray is actively involved in overseeing the investment of the Foundation’s assets; determining the strategic direction, budget and allocation of the Foundation’s grantmaking activities; establishing procedures for the objective review and assessment of grant applications; approving staffing plans; and, overseeing the Foundation staff in the implementation of its grant programs.
In addition to his work with the Foundation, Ray is the President of Neilsen and Company, a real estate development company responsible for a number of major commercial, residential, educational and municipal buildings. Originally founded and operated by his grandfather in the 1960s and led by his dad for the next three decades, Ray continues the Neilsen family legacy of creating exceptional real estate projects. Neilsen and Company is developing projects ranging from hotels and restaurants to mixed use projects in various roles from investor-partner to co-owner.
Ray’s professional career began as a busboy at Ameristar Casinos, Inc., the company founded by Craig H. Neilsen. His father insisted Ray immerse himself in and learn about all levels of the organization, so he worked through the ranks and was with the company for 20 years. Ultimately, Ray served as Chairman of the Board of Directors, as well as Senior Vice President and Board Co- Chairman and Vice President of Operations and Special Projects.
Ray earned a Bachelor of Science degree in history from the College of Idaho and a Masters in Business Administration from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Co-Trustee and Board Member
Gordon R. Kanofsky
Gordy Kanofsky has been actively involved as an advisory board member of the Foundation since its inception in 2002 and was appointed as a member of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation’s Board of Directors in 2006.
Gordy was the Chief Executive Officer (June 2008-August 2013) and a member of the Board of Directors (November 2006-August 2013) of Ameristar Casinos, Inc., the company founded by Craig H. Neilsen. He previously served, as Vice-Chairman of the Board, Co-Chairman of the Board, Executive Vice President and Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs since he joined the company in 1999. Prior to this, he served as Ameristar’s outside general counsel since 1998 and its securities counsel since 1993, when he was retained to represent Ameristar in connection with its initial public offering.
Gordy was in private practice as a corporate and securities lawyer in Washington, DC and Los Angeles for 20 years before joining Ameristar. He became a partner in Hughes Hubbard & Reed in 1989 and later became a shareholder in Sanders, Barnet, Goldman, Simons & Mosk.
Gordy has served on the Board of Directors of the American Gaming Association, in various volunteer leadership positions for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and as the Chairman of the Los Angeles chapter of the Washington University Alumni Association.
He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, from Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in history. Gordy earned his law degree, with honors, from Duke University.
Robert D. Brown, Jr., MD, MPH
Dr. Robert Brown joined the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation as a Board Member in April 2007.
At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, Bob is a professor of neurology in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, and is the John T. and Lillian Mathews Professor of Neuroscience. In addition to his clinical work, his research interests include cerebrovascular diseases of all types, including primary and secondary stroke prevention, acute ischemic stroke, carotid angioplasty/stenting, intracranial aneurysms, intracranial vascular malformations, primary central nervous system vasculitis and the epidemiology of stroke and other cerebrovascular disorders.
Bob has received a number of awards and distinctions. He is a previous recipient of the Mayo Distinguished Clinicians Award, the Mayo School of Continuing Medical Education Outstanding Faculty Award, the Mayo Individual Award for Excellence and the American Heart Association’s Stroke Leadership Award. He has been elected to membership as a fellow in the American Neurological Association, and is a fellow in the Stroke Council of the American Stroke Association, and in the American Academy of Neurology.
Bob completed his medical training at Mayo Medical School, neurology residency at Mayo Clinic and stroke and cerebrovascular disease fellowship at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. He also has a Masters of Public Health in epidemiology and clinical trial design.
Daniel P. Lammertse, MD
Dr. Daniel Lammertse was elected to the Board of Directors in 2011. Prior to this, Dan served as a member of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation’s Scientific Review Boards from 2005-2011.
For 35 years, Dan practiced Spinal Cord Injury Medicine at Craig Hospital in Englewood, CO until retiring in 2016. During his tenure at Craig, he served as the hospital’s Medical Director (1984-2008) and Medical Director of Research (2008-2016). Dan was also the co-project director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Spinal Cord Injury System and served as Chair of the NIDRR SCI Model Systems Project Directors Committee from 2000-2006. He served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine and is a member of the Spinal Cord Outcomes Partnership Endeavor (SCOPE) steering committee. Dan also has an appointment as Clinical Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.
Dan has authored numerous chapters and scientific articles on topics in spinal cord injury and is internationally recognized as an expert in spinal cord injury medicine and rehabilitation. He has served on the Board of Directors of the American Spinal Injury Association from 1991-2003 and was President of the Association from 2001-2003. He also served on the American Paraplegia Society Board of Directors from 2003-2005.
Dan received his medical degree and specialty training in rehabilitation medicine at The Ohio State University. He is board certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and has a sub-specialty certification in Spinal Cord Injury Medicine.
Lorne M. Mendell, PhD
Dr. Lorne Mendell has been member of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation’s Board of Directors since 2007.
Lorne is Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. He joined the department in 1980, serving as Chair from 1986 to 2006. In 2006, he stepped down as Chair to concentrate more fully on his research.
Lorne’s long career in neuroscience has focused on the electrophysiological study of pain mechanisms and spinal pathways. Most recently, he has studied the role of neurotrophic factors and exercise paradigms in modulating spinal circuitry after injury. Presently, Lorne and his team are engaged in evaluating the possibility of developing novel neural relays in incomplete spinal cord injuries of rodents and in understanding the sensory changes after spinal injury.
Lorne has sat on numerous national and international scientific review boards throughout his career. He is presently the Chair of the New York State Spinal Cord Injury Research Board and a member of the CNNT Study Section at NIH. In 1997-98, Lorne was elected President of the Society for Neuroscience, the leading international organization for neuroscientists. He has served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology (1983-89) and has been on the editorial board of several other journals. He is also a Principal Investigator in the International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury, sponsored by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and is a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. His research achievements have been recognized by receipt of a Research Career Development Award and two Jacob Javits Neuroscience Awards from NIH.
Lorne obtained his PhD from MIT and did his postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School. His first academic position was at Duke University Medical Center. During this period, his main research effort was in the area of spinal cord plasticity in mammals and in amphibians.
Phillip G. Popovich, PhD
Dr. Phillip Popovich began his relationship with the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation in 2012 as a member of the SCIRTS Review Board. In July 2019, he was appointed to the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Phil has spent his entire professional career at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. There, he completed his PhD training in Physiology and Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) then, as a post-doctoral fellow, Phil was awarded a competitive Sandoz Research Fellowship to support his formal training in immunology and CNS autoimmune disease. In 2006, he was appointed by Ohio State as the Ray W. Poppleton Research Designated Endowed Chair. In his lab, he has been making seminal contributions to the field of neuroscience and is internationally renowned for doing innovative and rigorous research, especially in the sub-disciplines of neurotrauma and neuroimmunology.
Beyond the Ohio State community, he is a member of several national and international advisory boards for foundations and organizations that support SCI research, patient advocacy and policy development. He also serves on the editorial board of various scientific journals. Phil has received numerous awards to recognize his scientific accomplishments. In 2013, he was inducted as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and two years later was appointed as a member of the Faculty of 1000. Phil received the David F. Apple, Jr. Award from the American Spinal Injury Association in 2017 and in 2019 he was awarded an R35 Outstanding Investigator Award from NIH-NINDS that will fund his research lab through 2027.
Phil is currently Professor and Chair of OSU’s Department of Neuroscience. He also serves as Director of the Center for Brain and Spinal Cord Repair, Executive Director of the Belford Center for Spinal Cord Injury and co-Director of the Neurological Research Institute. In 2018, he was named a Distinguished University Scholar.
Ruth V. Watkins, PhD
Dr. Ruth V. Watkins joined the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation’s Board of Directors in 2018.
Board Member Ruth V. Watkins began serving as the 16th president of the University of Utah on April 2, 2018. Prior to that, she served as the U’s senior vice president for academic affairs. In that role, she provided leadership for the university’s academic mission, guiding the campus on matters related to faculty, staff, and students. She also helped set the U’s strategic direction and align its resources with academic priorities. Ruth is an advocate for advancing the success and impact of the U as a top-tier research university, including enhancing student success through degree completion and expanding research and creative activity.
Ruth came to Utah in 2013 from the University of Illinois, where she spent 20 years in leadership and faculty roles, including associate provost for undergraduate education, vice provost and chief of staff, and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She began her academic career at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her scholarship focuses on communication development and disabilities in young children.
Ruth’s research and training endeavors have been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education, as well as Lumina Foundation. She also has a certificate of clinical competence in speech-language pathology. In 2003, she was named a fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Ruth has received recognition for excellence in teaching; her scholarship has been widely published in journals and books.
Ruth graduated with highest honors from the University of Northern Iowa with a Bachelor’s degree in speech-language pathology. She earned a Master’s degree and a Doctorate in child language at the University of Kansas.
As the Executive Director of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, Kym is responsible for the organization’s day-to-day management, consistent with the mission, values and long-range strategic plan of the Foundation. Kym works with the Co-Trustees and Board of Directors on the vision of the organization as set forth by Craig H. Neilsen. She provides leadership in strategic planning and all operational areas, ensuring the development of innovative and effective programming.
Kym has more than 20 years of hands-on non-profit leadership experience, with specific emphases on strategic planning, budgeting, managing board relationships, team-building, communications, marketing/branding and fundraising. Kym holds an undergraduate degree from the University of California, Riverside and a Masters in Fine Arts and Non-Profit Management from UCLA.
Senior Vice President of Grants and Research
Naomi Kleitman, PhD
Dr. Naomi Kleitman serves as the Senior Vice President of Grants and Research, overseeing the Foundation’s research portfolios, as well as providing strategic guidance on all grant programs for the organization. She is based in Maryland, near Washington, DC.
From 2001-2012, Naomi served as a Program Director at the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, administering a portfolio of grants and contracts in spinal cord injury (SCI) research aimed at developing successful strategies for nervous system repair and restoration of function. She also focused on translation of fundamental research on spinal cord and peripheral neural repair into clinical studies that apply these basic principles, and the development of rigorous standards for preclinical and translational SCI research. Naomi has participated on numerous NIH and interagency groups, as a Federal Liaison to SCI research programs at the Departments of Defense, Veterans Administration and several non-federal agencies, and was co-lead for the NIH/NINDS-FDA/CBER working group.
Naomi was a faculty member of the University of Miami School of Medicine in The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis from 1989-2001, studying mechanisms of axonal regeneration in tissue culture and the development of populations of adult rodent and human Schwann cells for transplantation in peripheral and central nervous system injury sites. She also served as the Scientific Liaison for The Miami Project, encouraging interaction between clinicians, rehabilitation and basic researchers, as well as informing the public, patient groups, and the media about progress in SCI research.
Naomi received a PhD in neural and behavioral biology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and did postdoctoral work at Washington University, St. Louis.
Vice President of Finance
As Vice President of Finance, Jason is responsible for managing all of the Foundation’s financial activities and safeguarding all of its assets. He oversees the Foundation’s investment portfolio, annual operating budget, grants disbursement, reporting and audit process.
Jason comes to the Foundation with an extensive background in finance and accounting, including experience managing cash flow, developing budgets and creating and maintaining internal controls. He began his career in the audit practice of KPMG and rose to become a senior manager. Since then, he has worked with companies in a multitude of industries, and his experience includes work with a non-profit organization. Jason received his Bachelor of Science degree in accounting from California State University, Northridge, and is also a California CPA (Inactive).
As Office Manager, Therese Biederman is responsible for providing high-level professional management and support for the Neilsen Foundation’s staff and overall grant-making activities. This includes oversight of the operation and maintenance of office services and coordination of the administrative, logistical and clerical functions of the Neilsen Foundation’s Encino office.
Therese has been working in senior administrative positions for 20 years, starting in Australia, including service as Executive Assistant at the Research and Development Division of Solution 6 Software and as Senior Administrative Assistant to the CEO at ACHS Healthcare. She came to the United States in 2001 and has been working in the Los Angeles area since, most recently as an Executive Assistant for the Audit Department of World Vision, International, which is a relief organization providing humanitarian aid to the poor and oppressed focusing especially on the needs of children.
Director of Grants Management
Kim Cerise is the Director of Grants Management, where she is responsible for managing the Foundation’s grants processes. Kim works at the Foundation’s satellite office in Twin Falls, ID.
Kim has worked for the Neilsen Foundation since its inception. Initially, she worked part-time on the Foundation’s accounting and bookkeeping, as well as assisting with the scientific research grants process. Her responsibilities expanded to overseeing the online grants administration. She joined the Foundation full-time in 2011 when she became the organization’s Grants and Finance Assistant before transitioning into her current position.
Prior to joining the Foundation, Kim worked for 20 years for Craig Neilsen’s first business, Neilsen and Company, in Twin Falls, ID, and was responsible for a wide variety of duties. During that time, she also worked for Ameristar Casinos, also founded by Craig Neilsen. Earlier in her career, Kim worked at the Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology in Butte, MT, where she was responsible for managing the Admissions Office’s student information system.
Grants Management Associate
Ehrica Hernandez is the Grants Management Associate. In this role, her responsibilities include administrative support of the Foundation’s grantmaking processes. She also supports grant-related program activities, liaising with staff based out of the Foundation’s National Office in Los Angeles, CA and its four satellite offices.
Ehrica has over 12 years of experience working in administrative support roles. Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked for the City of Pasadena Public Health Department as a Staff Assistant III. During her time there, she performed high-level support to multiple health programs, including substance abuse prevention, tobacco control, nutrition and physical activity, and bioterrorism/emergency preparedness program. In addition, she provided department-wide operational support that included inventory control, payroll, and grants and contracts preparation.
As the Program Associate, Julea is responsible for ensuring all internal and external communications from the Foundation are deployed in a consistent and professional manner. In addition, the Program Associate works with the Program Officers for the Spinal Cord Injury Research on the Translational Spectrum (SCIRTS), Psychosocial Research/Spinal Cord Injury Medicine Fellowships (PSR/SCIMF) and Creating Opportunity & Independence (CO&I) portfolios and the Grants Management office to facilitate program announcements and grant opportunities. The Program Associate also oversees the Neilsen Scholarship Program (NSP).
Julea joins the Foundation with a background in the non-profit independent school setting overseeing events and alumni relations as well as maintaining an integral role in social media, communications and fundraising. Julea received her Bachelor of Science in Business Marketing from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, CA.
Gina Knight, CPA
As Controller, Gina is responsible for helping to manage all of the Foundation’s financial activities. She helps oversee the Foundation’s investment portfolio as well as manage the reporting and audit process.
Gina joins the Foundation with over 10 years of experience in general accounting and financial reporting. With several years of experience in financial services, Gina brings her experience at Wells Fargo Capital Finance where she managed all general accounting functions as well as several years in the mortgage industry. She received her Bachelor of Science in accounting from California State University, Northridge, and is also a California CPA.
Jane Otto is Program Officer for the Creating Opportunity & Independence (CO&I) portfolio. Jane works closely with the CO&I Review Board to help support and develop and/or augment innovative programs that will impact the lives of individuals living with spinal cord injury.
Jane brings more than 30 years of experience in the non-profit sector with expertise in fundraising, strategic planning, board development, communications, marketing and branding. Her diverse skill set includes leadership positions with notable organizations such as The Rockefeller University where she served under four Nobel Laureates, and non-profit management in the performing arts, independent schools, colleges and universities.
Jane holds a B.A. from the University of Utah and has served as an adjunct faculty member at New York University.
SCIRTS Program Associate
Jacob Shreckengost, PhD
Dr. Jacob Shreckengost is a Program Associate for the Spinal Cord Injury Research on the Translational Spectrum (SCIRTS). He assists in management of this portfolio throughout all stages of the application and review process.
As a child, Jacob witnessed a car accident that left his younger brother Jesse, then 5, tetraplegic due to a spinal cord injury between the first two cervical vertebrae. This inspired Jacob to focus on neuroscience throughout his academic career with a particular interest in the functioning of spinal cellular networks before and after injury.
Jacob received his undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Chicago and then attended Emory University to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience, where his work focused on understanding sensory gating in mammalian spinal circuits. His post-doctoral research was split between Emory University and Spelman college, where he focused both on laboratory science and science teaching. Through his doctoral and post-doctoral research, Jacob developed expertise in cellular communication in the spinal cord. He has held faculty and administrative positions at Emory University, Syracuse University, Spelman College, and Georgia State University, where he was heavily involved in teaching, curriculum design, and program management. For the last 4 years, he also been involved in the Emory Tibet Science teaching biology and neuroscience to Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in Southern India.
Tracey Wheeler, PhD
Dr. Tracey Wheeler is a Program Officer for the Spinal Cord Injury Research on the Translational Spectrum (SCIRTS) portfolio. She co-manages the funding portfolio that spans mechanistic, translational and early clinical research aimed at improving recovery from spinal cord injury. Tracey works out of the Foundation’s satellite office in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
Tracey has over 15 years of experience in scientific program development, research evaluation, and program management of pre-clinical, translational, and clinical research. Prior to joining the Foundation in November 2014, she worked as a scientific consultant and staff advisor at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the areas of biomedical and biotechnology research. There, she supported a wide range of programs in DARPA’s Biological Technologies, Defense Sciences, and Microsystems Technology Offices, with a strong emphasis on neural interface technologies. This work included DARPA-funded projects designed to determine neural interface failure mechanisms, create technological improvements to overcome these failures, and transition ready technologies to clinical use. She has numerous publications on topics ranging from emerging brain-computer-interface technologies to the long-term effects of stimulant exposure on adolescent central nervous system development.
Tracey received her PhD in psychology with a concentration in biopsychology from George Mason University.