Transformative gifts provide vital support for much-needed migraine and neurological pain research. (Image source: iStock.)

USC Dornsife receives gift to expand the understanding and clinical management of migraine and other debilitating neurological pain

Arnold and Roberta Mahler aim to break down research silos, accelerate treatment progress and bring hope to patients and families.
ByRachel B. Levin

Roberta “Bobbi” Mahler ’66 knows firsthand that the pain associated with migraine disease is not just physiological. Living with chronic neurological pain can also be emotionally distressing, impacting both migraine sufferers and those who care for them.

Mahler’s daughter first developed debilitating headaches at age 14, in 1988. As her daughter’s physical and mental anguish worsened over time and treatments proved inadequate, Mahler felt powerless to help her.

Her desire to spare other migraine patients and their families such suffering now underlies the generous gifts that she and her husband, Arnold Mahler, have made to the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Middle-aged man and woman wearing light, casual clothing lean against one another while standing in front of rocks and the ocean
Arnold and Bobbi Mahler. (Image: Courtesy of the Mahlers.)

In Spring 2022, the Mahlers donated $2 million to USC Dornsife to establish endowed funds aimed at furthering the understanding of neurological pain and its clinical management through collaborative endeavors between researchers at both USC schools. Several weeks later, they bequeathed a third of their estates to establish an endowed professorship in headache and neuralgia medicine at Keck School of Medicine.

“Anyone who has experienced … being in a helpless position of watching a loved one suffering intense pain will be able to relate to my desire to improve our medical professions’ knowledge and understanding and their practices related to neurological ailments and pain management,” says Bobbi Mahler.

Gift aims to overcome barriers to treatment

Mahler notes that when her daughter first began experiencing migraine over three decades ago, doctors dismissed her complaints. “No matter where we took her, they said, ‘It’s all in her head,’” she recalls.

In the ensuing decades, “there’s been a lot of progress in the field, and doctors … recognize it as a real issue,” she says. “But not enough has happened, in large part from a lack of collaboration and grant acquisition between departments and schools within individual universities.”

Though high-profile individuals, including tennis star Serena Williams, have been publicly vocal about their struggles with migraine in recent years, research shows that stigma remains a barrier to treatment for many of the 47 million Americans who live with migraine.

Other studies indicated that the dearth of federal funding for migraine research and of medical specialists who treat migraine has meant that the pace of research on effective treatments has been slow, and treatments, data and clinical studies are not universally shared and discussed.

With their gifts, the Mahlers aim to support research and clinical advancements that pierce such barriers.

“We want to elevate and escalate the speed of progress,” says Mahler. “We want help for migraine sufferers sooner, better, faster.”

Collaboration targets pain

In their careers, both Arnold and Bobbi Mahler served in leadership roles that taught them the value of bringing experts together to solve complex problems. Bobbi Mahler, who majored in international relations and earned her teaching credential at USC Dornsife, had a long career as an elementary school administrator and superintendent.

“I learned that the best things get done in the best ways when you have all the forces contributing,” says Mahler, who now coaches educational administrators.

Arnold Mahler developed a similar view through his work running an international acquisitions and mergers business.

The couple came to believe that the best way to accelerate understanding and treatment of neurological pain is to dissolve institutional divisions between researchers and medical clinicians. “You work it out like a jigsaw puzzle together,” says Bobbi Mahler.

When approaching USC with their idea for the endowed funds, “we insisted on a commitment to an intentional and consistent venue for the sharing of knowledge and practice between clinicians and researchers,” she says. “As a result of what we wanted, it became evident we needed to establish two endowments, not one.”

Transformative gifts boost powerful research

With $1.5 million of their gift going to USC Dornsife, the couple established the Mahler Family Endowed Fellowship Fund, which provides fellowships to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to pursue fundamental or translational research related to neurological pain, from molecular mechanism to brain function.

The remaining $500,000 of their gift established the Mahler Family Endowed Research Fund, which will support collaborative research activities of the USC Dornsife Pain Center.

Not too many people can be this lucky to see a dream start to be fulfilled.

Their bequest to Keck School of Medicine, currently valued at about $2 million, will establish the Dr. Roberta and Arnold Mahler Endowed Professorship in Headache and Neuralgia Medicine. The holder of the professorship will oversee collaborative efforts between the USC Department of Neurology at Keck School of Medicine and USC Dornsife.

Should the bequest ultimately exceed $2 million, the remainder will establish the Dr. Roberta and Arnold Mahler Translational Science Fund, whose purpose will be to support a program manager responsible for assisting in the formal collaboration efforts between the two USC schools.

“These transformative gifts represent a lasting commitment to USC for the Mahlers, whose estates will leave a legacy of impact for years to come,” said Alexandra Lohse, senior director of development and planned giving at USC Dornsife.

Research to end migraine is “all about hope”

While the endowments will afford scholars and students enhanced opportunities to teach, learn and generate impactful research, the ultimate beneficiaries of the gifts will be patients who struggle with neurological pain. Patients who become subjects of the collaborative research and clinical activities “will receive and contribute to advanced effective treatment of neurological diseases and chronic pain,” says Mahler.

Finding new ways to safely and reliably relieve migraine promises to transform the sense of hopelessness that many patients and families feel.

“They will be able to live fuller, happier and more productive lives,” she says. “It’s all about hope.”

The Mahlers also wish to inspire additional donations to USC that expand research and treatment funding for migraine and other chronic neural pain conditions that prevent people from living full and satisfying lives.

“Our dream is that others who have an interest in collaborative, multidisciplinary problem-solving in the world of medical research will also contribute to these efforts to whatever degree they can,” says Mahler.

Mahler notes that seeing her and her husband’s vision for the endowments come to fruition is very gratifying. “Not too many people can be this lucky to see a dream start to be fulfilled,” she says.