Joseph R. Vasselli

In Memory


Joseph R. Vasselli, PhD (1940-2021) was born in Newark to the late James and Marie Vasselli and had lived in Fort Lee, Edgewater, NJ and Milford, CT. Joe was a Veteran of the Air Force Reserves and received his B.A. and PhD from Columbia University.

Research and Service to Science Summary
Dr. Vasselli (affectionately known as Joe, by his colleagues) was a biopsychologist whose primary research interest was mechanisms of appetite and body weight regulation. His work was focused on the role of the adipose tissue hormone leptin in this regulatory process, and in an understanding of leptin resistance, a state of reduced responsiveness to leptin, which accompanies developing obesity. In addition, Joe had a longstanding interest in the development and testing of nutritional and pharmacological interventions for obesity and diabetes. Joe did his doctoral training in the Columbia University Psychology Department with Dr. Stephen C. Woods. Joe, Steve and their collaborators published research reports on conditioned insulin secretion, iron appetite and schedule-induced polydipsia and a major review paper on "Metabolic hormones and regulation of body weight."

Joe completed an NIMH postdoctoral fellowship (1976-1978) in behavioral neuroscience at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York with Dr. Anthony Sclafani (Tony) and in endocrinology and nutrition at the Columbia University Institute of Human Nutrition with Dr. M.R.C. Greenwood. Joe investigated the effects of insulin on taste reactivity in rats and, in collaboration with Tony and Dr. Henry Koopmans (Columbia University), studied the effects of jejunoileal bypass surgery on food intake and body weight regulation in hypothalamic obese rats. Years later, Joe also collaborated with Tony and John Glendinning (Barnard College, Columbia University) on the role of the sweet taste receptor in the cephalic phase insulin response.

Joe began his independent research career at the New York Obesity Research Center (NYORC), St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital under its original Director, Dr. Theodore Van Itallie. There he met his future wife Carol Maggio, PhD. He engaged in preclinical pharmacological research at Miles Pharmaceuticals, West Haven, CT (now Bayer, Inc.) before returning to academic research at the NYORC under the Director, Dr. Pi-Sunyer.

In the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, Joe collaborated extensively with David Allison on a series of projects involving caloric restriction, weight change, weight cycling, and longevity in rodent models. He proved himself over and over to be a wonderful colleague. He was one part hands, one part head, and one part heart, and all the parts came together in harmony. By that, we mean that he was a rigorous scientist focusing on implementation of protocols with the utmost technical expertise. He brought the hands to the experiment and had good hands. One always knew that when Joe ran a project, it was run meticulously. By head, we mean he was, in the best sense of the word, a head-scratcher. His many years involved in the Columbia appetitive seminars and the notoriously socially and intellectually challenging seminars of the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital made him acutely well-equipped for thoughtful, constructive, incisive, but always collegial debate. Whether it was physiology, molecular biology, nutrition qua nutrition, or psychological aspects, Joe knew the history. He could connect divergent ideas from divergent fields. He was a superb interlocutor and enjoyed pondering out loud with others to discuss about how ideas fit together and what might and might not be crazy enough to be true. And, most of all, there was the heart. Joe was fun. The debates were friendly. He could be kind and supportive of others. He could educate others without condescending. He could be educated by others without being off put. He could enjoy a drink, a good meal, and a laugh together while discussing science. The triple combination of hands, head, and heart made him among our most valued colleagues.

Joe taught in the graduate program at the Columbia University Institute of Human Nutrition, and lectured on obesity and body weight regulation at other colleges and institutions in the New York City area. He was a member of: American Diabetes Association, American Physiological Association, the Endocrine Society, the Obesity Society, and the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior. At the time of his retirement, he was a Research Associate, Columbia University Department of Medicine and an Associate Research Scientist, Columbia University Institute of Human Nutrition, and a member of NYONRC. Dr. Vasselli had over 70 publications. During his years at St. Luke’s Hospital Joe was appointed the second rapporteur for the Columbia University Seminar on Appetitive Behavior, founded by Dr. Van Itallie who served as chair. Joe served in this role from 1979 to 1990 and did most of the day to day work, organizing and inviting speakers, keeping minutes, deposited at the Columbia Seminars Archive, and obtaining financial support. Joe was a founding member of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior where he was a member of the board (1995-1997), and served as treasurer (1997-2000), and as president-elect , president, and past president (2001-2004).

Selected Publications
Lotter EC, Woods SC, Vasselli JR. Schedule-induced polydipsia: an artifact. J Comp Physiol Psychol. 1973 Jun;83(3):478-84. doi: 10.1037/h0034670. PMID: 4715308. THE FIRST

Vasselli JR, Juray S, Trasino SE. Success and failures of telehealth during COVID-19 should inform digital applications to combat obesity. Obes Sci Pract. 2021 Aug 19;8(2):254-258. doi: 10.1002/osp4.551. PMID: 34540264; PMCID: PMC8441632. THE LAST


Prepared by Dymna Gallegher, Harry Kissileff, Anthoy Sclafani and David Allison