Five scholars receive UTHealth’s most distinguished awards

award-winners-photo
President's Scholar Award winners (left to right) Deanna M. Hoelscher, Ph.D., R.D.N, L.D., C.N.S.; Rodney E. Kellems, Ph.D.; Carmel B. Dyer, M.D.; Donald A. Molony, Jr., M.D., and Donna Warren-Morris, R.D.H., M.Ed. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jacob Power)

HOUSTON – Five outstanding faculty from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) received honors during the 2017 President’s Scholar Awards ceremony and luncheon held Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Denton A. Cooley, MD and Ralph C. Cooley, DDS University Life Center.

Deanna M. Hoelscher, Ph.D., R.D.N, L.D., C.N.S., of UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin’s Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living received the President’s Scholar Award for Excellence in Research. This year’s recipients for the President’s Scholar Awards for Excellence in Teaching were Donald A. Molony, Jr., M.D., of McGovern Medical School and Donna P. Warren-Morris, R.D.H., M.Ed., of UTHealth School of Dentistry. Carmel B. Dyer, M.D., of McGovern Medical School received the inaugural President’s Scholar Award for Excellence in Clinical Service. In addition, President Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, M.D., created the first President’s Recognition of Excellence Award, which was bestowed upon Rodney E. Kellems, Ph.D., of McGovern Medical School.

“The Presidential Scholar Awards are the most distinguished acknowledgements that we bestow on our faculty in teaching, research and, this year going forward, clinical service. These recipients have shown peerless passion and dedication this year and UTHealth is fortunate to claim them as ours,” Colasurdo said prior to the event. “And, this year, we have included a special award for overall outstanding dedication and service to the institution while demonstrating longstanding excellence in his or her field.”

Michael R. Blackburn, Ph.D., executive vice president and chief academic officer for UTHealth, said, “This year’s recipients were chosen from a field of superb scholars -- any one of them deserving of recognition for their outstanding accomplishments and contributions. The selection committee this year had a daunting task.”

Blackburn and Kevin A. Morano, Ph.D., associate vice president for faculty affairs and development, presided over the ceremony and luncheon, which was attended by guests of the award recipients including several UTHealth Development Board members.

Excellence in Research

Hoelscher is professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, the John P. McGovern Professor in Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, associate regional dean of research affairs and founding director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living.

Morano described her “day job as a trained nutritionist and biologist but she has achieved international recognition in the fields of behavioral nutrition and nutrition epidemiology in low-income, ethnically diverse children and adolescents.”

Hoelscher’s research interests focus on teaching children and their families how to engage in healthier behaviors to avoid the development of chronic diseases often brought on by obesity. Her mission is to engage in practice-based teaching, research and service, which includes mentoring the next generation of public health professionals.

Hoelscher, who grew up in a small Texas farming community, said she had “wonderful mentors, teachers and parents who taught me the value of hard work, physical exercise and good food.” She credits her mother, who taught science and home economics at the middle school, for her passion for science. Hoelscher said, “I was probably the only 12-year-old girl in that town to get a chemistry set for my birthday!”

Excellence in Teaching

Two faculty members received awards for excellence in teaching this year.

Molony, professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Renal Diseases and Hypertension, and Center for Clinical Research and Evidence-Based Medicine, joined the faculty in 1984. Since then, Morano described, Molony “has made the ultimate indelible mark on our medical school students for more than 30 years through the very creation and direction of their core curriculum.”

Molony has won numerous teaching awards – 25 times for the Dean’s Teaching Award, The University of Texas Board of Regents Outstanding Teaching Award and was elected to both the UT System Shine Academy and the McGovern Medical School Academy of Health Science Educators, while also maintaining a vibrant practice as a nephrologist.

Molony spoke of the importance of “the village, a community of those who are interested” when it comes to mentoring students and young faculty, and creating curricula. Molony, in describing lessons learned from his first and greatest teacher, chair of the Department of Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, said, “What I learned from his approach to education was that it was never about him, his ego, his talents as a clinician or lecturer. It was all and always about the learners.”

Warren-Morris, director of the Dental Hygiene Program and professor in the Department of Periodontics and Dental Hygiene, was recognized for her trailblazing work in distance learning and online education, writing curricula for the then embryonic use of the Web for teaching.

Warren-Morris is the holder of multiple national, regional and local teaching awards, including The University of Texas Board of Regents Outstanding Teaching Award, the 2017 American Dental Hygienists’ Association Excellence in Dental Education Award and multiple UTHealth School of Dentistry Dean’s Teaching Excellence Awards.

Her professional career and research have focused on interprofessional education, faculty development, geriatric oral health, preventive dentistry and distance education learning. Currently, she is developing two new master’s programs in dental hygiene programs to be of­fered at UTHealth School of Dentistry.

Warren-Morris said that one of her early teaching positions opened her eyes “ to how education can be a stepping stone for disadvantaged students—especially women—to move beyond dead-end jobs, drug addiction, bad relationships and poor self-esteem. I learned how important it was to a student’s success to have someone believe in them.”

Excellence in Clinical Service

Dyer, professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, founder of its Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at McGovern Medical School, and executive director of the UTHealth Consortium on Aging, received the first-ever President’s Scholar Award for Excellence in Clinical Service.

Dyer, the Nancy P. and Vincent F. Guinee, MD Distinguished Chair and Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington Chair in Gerontology, developed inpatient geriatric and palliative clinics and house call programs at Harris Health System, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and UT Physicians. At each of these sites, interprofessional teams deliver specialized care to patients.

Morano said that the stories of Dyer’s personal involvement with the lives of her patients and their families are legendary, from attending birthday parties to making house calls, “and Friday night check-in calls just to make sure the medication prescribed that day was working.”

A nationally known expert on elder abuse, Dyer was instrumental in opening the first Senior Justice Assessment Center in Texas and the first Forensic Assessment Center Network for older adults in the country. Dyer is currently working to implement a comprehensive continuum of care for geriatric patients, a proposed model, developed by faculty from all six schools at UTHealth, which would support multiple clinical and academic programs.

Dyer cited her days as a volunteer reading cards and letters to elders in a nursing facility and “Mrs. Byrd, director of nursing, who put together a whole program for me” as the sparks that led her to a career in geriatric medicine. What followed, she said, was years of training, first as a nurse assistant and then as a board certified internist and geriatrician, “But, little did I imagine back when I was in college that today in 2017, elder adults would need advocates more today than they ever had before.” She thanked UTHealth leadership for providing her the means to set up programming “throughout the TMC and beyond” to provide quality care for elders. “And, Mrs. Byrd, for without her mentorship and God’s good grace, I would not have the opportunity take care of the best patients in the city.”

Inaugural Recognition of Excellence

Kellems, professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a member of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, received the inaugural President’s Recognition of Excellence Award.

Kellems’ early research centered on understanding severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) that results from adenosine deaminase ADA) deficiency in humans. While at Baylor College of Medicine, he and Blackburn, then a postdoctoral fellow, devised a novel two-stage genetic engineering strategy to construct ADA-deficient mice. Kellems joined McGovern Medical School in 1997 and continued using these mice as a discovery platform to determine the detrimental role of excessive adenosine signaling in other diseases. The mice also provided pre-clinical testing leading to successful use of gene therapy to treat ADA-deficiency in humans.

For the past 15 years. Kellems and Yang Xia, M.D., Ph.D., have been studying the role of autoantibodies in preeclampsia, suggesting an autoimmune response as the trigger for this dangerous complication of pregnancy.

Kellems has received over 35 years of support from the National Institutes of Health, co-authored 150 papers and received three U.S. patents. His published work has been cited more than 9,000 times.

“I view myself as a curiosity-driven scientist with a focus on biology,” Kellems said. “I like science and I like scientists and I have always been attracted to an academic environment.”

Kellems thanked Colasurdo for selecting him as the first recipient of this award. “However, Dr. Colasurdo knows, the greatest reward we have is the satisfaction of working enthusiastically together with talented people we trust and respect.”

— Written by Karen Kaplan