Brooke Ellison, associate professor in Stony Brook University’s School of Health Professions, health policy and medical ethics expert, leader in stem cell research and passionate advocate for the disabled, died February 4 at the age of 45.
Ellison’s inspirational story was known to many at Stony Brook and beyond. Paralyzed from the neck down at age 11 after being hit by a car while trying to cross a busy road on her first day of junior high school, Ellison went on to graduate with honors from Ward Melville High School in Setauket, NY and earn admission to Harvard University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of science in cognitive neuroscience. She later earned a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and received her PhD in sociology from Stony Brook in 2012, joining the university faculty that same year.
Ellison was an associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences in the School of Health Professions as well as a research assistant professor in the Renaissance School of Medicine, and former director of the Center for Community Engagement and Leadership Development, which fosters research partnerships between the university and community-based organizations and groups throughout Suffolk County.
Her work as a researcher and scholar focused on the ethics and policy of science and healthcare, particularly the intersection of disability and bioethics, as well as strategies to make healthcare and technology accessible to those most in need. Ellison recently led the Inclusion in Innovation team in the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program, which focused on student-created technological innovations that could potentially help meet the needs of people with varying disabilities, particularly around accessibility issues.
Ellison was committed to changing the perception of life-saving science, serving as the director of Education and Ethics of the Stony Brook University Stem Cell Facility; she was also cofounder of the Stony Brook University VENTure Think Tank, which was designed to develop policy and technological solutions for individuals on ventilators. From 2007-2014, Brooke served on the Empire State Stem Cell Board, which designed New York State’s stem cell policy.
Ellison was the president and founder of The Harvard Alumni Disability Alliance dedicated to the inclusion and recognition of Harvard alumni who live with disability. With support from the School of Health Professions and the Harvard Kennedy School, she was scheduled to serve as a senior fellow at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in the next academic year. Her many accolades include selection as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, a Truman National Security Project Political Partner, and a Stony Brook University 40 Under Forty alumni honoree. Ellison was also a candidate for the New York State Senate in 2006, focusing on issues like healthcare and stem cell research.
Ellison’s first book, Miracles Happen: One Mother, One Daughter, One Journey (2002), written with her mother, Jean Ellison, was later adapted into a movie directed by Christopher Reeve titled The Brooke Ellison Story. Her second book, Look Both Ways, was published in 2021 and explored topics such as identity, ethics, inclusion, hope, and love. Ellison will be featured in the upcoming documentary, Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month.
Ellison said, “One of the few guarantees in life is that it will never turn out the way we expect. But, rather than let the events in our lives define who we are, we can make the decision to define the possibilities in our lives.”
In a message to the campus community, Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis pointed to Ellison’s legacy at Stony Brook as being defined by a passionate advocacy for inclusive education, healthcare, and disability rights. “Dr. Ellison was greatly admired on campus, with her colleagues describing her as bold, brave, and action-oriented,” McInnis said. “I was always impressed by Dr. Ellison’s deep commitment to making a difference for our campus community. She helped alert me and others to our blind spots and offered many ideas for making this campus more inclusive and welcoming. And she was always eager to take on new challenges.”
Dean of the School of Health Professions Stacy Jaffee Gropack said, “Dr. Ellison was not just a remarkable individual but also a beacon of inspiration for countless people around the world. Her indomitable spirit, unwavering determination, and profound contributions to education, advocacy, and healthcare have left an enduring impact that will be felt for generations to come.”