June 04, 2015

Nine faculty members named winners of the 2015 Dean's Excellence Awards

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Nine outstanding faculty members were named recipients of the Dean’s Excellence Awards, an honor recognizing exceptional contributions made by School of Medicine faculty in service, teaching, research, diversity enhancement and mentorship. 

"It is my great pleasure to announce the winners of the 2015 Dean's Excellence Awards," said Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., F.A.C.S., senior vice president for Medicine and Dean of the UAB School of Medicine. "We reinstated the awards this year in order to recognize the truly outstanding work done by our faculty across these key areas. Each of the faculty members honored this year have much to be proud of in their careers here at UAB, and I greatly appreciate their commitment to our institution."

The 2015 winners are:

Lee I. Ascherman, M.D., MPH
Michele Kong, M.D.
Beatriz León-Ruiz, Ph.D.
Avi Madan-Swain, Ph.D.
Michele Nichols, M.D.
Lisa Schwiebert, Ph.D.
William (Steve) Stigler, M.D.
J. David Sweatt, Ph.D.
Yong Zhou, Ph.D.

Lee I. Ascherman, M.D., MPH

Ascherman Lee smallLee Ascherman, M.D., MPHLee I. Ascherman, M.D., MPH, professor and director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology, is a senior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in Diversity Enhancement.

Ascherman joined the UAB faculty in 1993 to develop the UAB residency in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Since his arrival, Ascherman has intentionally encouraged a culture of diversity and inclusion within his division and community.

“Dr. Ascherman has striven to create a culture of tolerance and respect among staff, faculty and residents, as well as towards all patients,” said James Cullinan, D.O, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology, who nominated Ascherman for the award.  Cullinan said Ascherman’s work has led the department and the residency program to represent a cross-section of race, ethnicity and religion. He has also been involved with early planning of the department’s LGBTQ-focused patient clinic that’s expected to open later this summer.  

Ascherman’s efforts were acknowledged when the division was recognized with the UAB President’s Diversity Award in 2011 for his exemplary track record of recruiting, training and retaining one of the most ethnically and racially diverse groups in the entire university.

Michele Kong, M.D.

Michele Kong small Michele Kong, M.D.Michele Kong M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics, is the junior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award for Service. Kong has a unique background that plays a role in her dedication and devotion to service to her school and field, said Richard J. Whitley, M.D., UAB Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics.  

Kong came to UAB in 2005 to complete fellowship training in in pediatric critical care and joined the faculty in 2008. After their son was diagnosed with autism in 2013,  Kong and her husband Julian Maha, M.D., recognized gaps in service for  children with autism and their families and cofounded Kulture City, a non-profit organization specializing in providing direct assistance to children with special needs and their families. Over the past two years, Kulture City has directly impacted more than 13,000 families through scholarships, art and music camps, and educational curriculums.

“It is remarkable that this organization is both the fastest growing nonprofit and the best-reviewed special needs nonprofit nationally for the years 2014 and 2015,” Whitley said. “She has done this in and for our Birmingham community.”

Kong has developed a lecture and workshop series in the Department of Pediatrics that covers issues with the critical assessment of children with autism in emergency settings to help prevent diagnostic errors, as well as methods to facilitate communication and strategies to address challenging behaviors in the hospital. These lectures have been given in and outside of Alabama to service providers, ranging from physicians and nurses to support staff. She also lectures to medical students in various topics in critical care medicine and autism.

“Her distinction in service is evidenced by the regular positive feedback received from her patients and their family members,” Whitley said. “She is compassionate, thoughtful and extremely well regarded among her colleagues, both locally and nationally.”

Beatriz León-Ruiz, Ph.D. 

bea leonBeatriz León-Ruiz, Ph.D. Beatriz León-Ruiz, Ph.D., assistant professor of Microbiology, is the junior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in Research.

León-Ruiz earned her Ph.D. in 2007 at Autónoma University in Madrid where she studied the biology of monocytes and their differentiation into dendritic cells. She became an assistant professor of Microbiology in the School of Medicine in 2012. Most of her research has focused on dendritic cells and their ability to present antigen to T cells to initiate adaptive immune responses and on manipulating in vivo dendritic cell function to either elicit extensive immune responses with therapeutic effects, in the context of vaccination, or to abrogate unwanted immune responses, in the context of allergy and autoimmune diseases.

She received her first R01 in February 2015 to study regulation of T cell responses to allergens and environmental microbes. She is also a co-investigator on two pending R01 grants and an R21 grant with investigators in the Departments of Microbiology, Genetics, Medicine and Pediatrics. She was named earlier this year as one of the School of Medicine’s inaugural Pittman Scholars.

In their nomination of León-Ruiz, her colleagues in the Department of Microbiology said she has been extremely productive for someone at such an early stage in her career. León-Ruiz regularly publishes as the lead author in top tier journals, with several papers having been cited over 100 times.  She also participates regularly as a collaborator, contributing to many co-authored publications that have also generated significant interest from experts in her field. The large number of co-authored publications shows her nature as a highly-collaborative scientist and the value fellow investigators place on her participation in their research.

 “She amplifies her impact on our campus by eagerly and effectively sharing her knowledge and ideas with students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty throughout UAB.”

Avi Madan-Swain, Ph.D.

 madan swain smallAvi Madan-Swain, Ph.D.Avi Madan-Swain, Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Hematology Oncology, is the senior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in
Service. Madan-Swain created and implemented the Division’s Hope and Cope Psychosocial Program, which provides support and services from diagnosis onwards using a family-centered approach, where the family and healthcare providers are partners working together to best meet the needs of the patient.  An interdisciplinary team of specialists including social workers, child life specialists, pediatric psychologists and neuropsychologists, school liaison, hospital teacher, chaplain, art and music therapists, nurse practitioners  and oncology nurses work together to provide emotional, psychological, and spiritual support, and also assist with concrete needs. The goal is to help families maximize their strength at all stages of their child’s treatment journey. 

Raymond G. Watts, M.D., director of the Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology, said Madan-Swain played the lead role in developing this program—which provides family service programs for patients and their relatives; creative therapies like art, music and drama; and school re-entry resources— and nurturing community partnerships that continue to fund the growing initiative.  Watts said the Hope and Cope program team is continually researching the most effective therapeutic and counseling techniques for children with cancer and educating new psychosocial workers to carry to program forward.

“The Hope and Cope program as developed by Dr. Madan-Swain is unique on our campus and really signifies Avi’s devotion to the patient population of children with cancer,” Watts said. 

Michele Nichols, M.D.

MicheleNicholsMichele Nichols, M.D.Michele Nichols, M.D., professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, is the senior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in Education. Nichols has made significant contributions within the department, serving as the co-director of the Pediatric Residency program for 20 years (13 years as a co-director, seven years as the director).

“I believe that much of the success and national attention received by our pediatric residency can be attributed to Dr. Nichols,” said Peter Glaeser, M.D., C. Phillip McWane Endowed Chair in Pediatric Emergency Medicine and director of the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine. “Our pediatric residents have had a 100 percent first time pass rate on the American Board of Pediatrics certification exam for the last three years and over 98 percent in the last six, making it one of the top five best performing programs in the country.”

Nichols was appointed the department’s vice chair of Education in 2014. She also co-founded and co-chairs the Pediatric Faculty Development Committee.

Nichols offers her expertise with work on the Dean’s Council, Graduate Medical Education, Admissions Interview Committee and the Admissions Executive Interview Committee. Nichols’ broad contributions have made a lasting impact on her community within the School of Medicine, Glaeser said.

Lisa Schwiebert, Ph.D.

Schwiebert smallLisa Schwiebert, Ph.D.Lisa Schwiebert, Ph.D., professor of Cell, Developmental, and Integrative Biology and associate dean for Postdoctoral Education, is a senior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in mentoring. Schwiebert has an ability to unite her own talents in the areas of research and teaching to serve as a mentor.

Schwiebert worked as the director of the Physiology Graduate Program for nine years and has served on more than 20 graduate student dissertation and postdoctoral career development committees. In 2007, she was appointed associate dean for Postdoctoral Education in the UAB Graduate School, where she and the office staff work with postdoctoral fellows, faculty members and administrators in postdoctoral recruitment, oversight and career development for the approximately 250 postdoctoral fellows currently training at UAB. Schwiebert served as the primary mentor for a total of nine trainees. Most of her trainees now hold faculty positions across the country and are completing their own NIH-funded endeavors.

Schwiebert built and currently instructs a year-round learning curriculum in professional development while serving in the Office of Postdoctoral Education and directs the Mentored Experiences in Research, Instruction, and Teaching (MERIT) Program, an NIH-funded program providing postdoctoral scholars with outstanding research and teaching experiences while improving the recruitment of students from underrepresented groups into the field of biomedical research.

“Since she was recruited to UAB nearly 20 years ago, Lisa has and continues to serve as a model mentor and invaluable mentoring resource for all doctoral trainees as well as faculty members in the UAB School of Medicine,” said Etty “Tika” Benveniste, Ph.D., professor and chairman in the Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology, who nominated Schwiebert for the award. “She is outstanding and most deserving of this recognition.”         

William (Steve) Stigler, M.D.

Steve Stigler smallWilliam (Steve) Stigler, M.D.William (Steve) Stigler, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine in the division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, is the junior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in teaching. Stigler has a passion for clinical education and instruction.

Stigler helped create a standard lecture curriculum for students and residents rotating in the Medical Intensive Care Unit. The curriculum is delivered by clinical faculty each month and covers core critical care topics. It has evolved to include a weekly conference focused on improving care in the MICU. Stigler’s efforts have greatly promoted a culture of safety and quality.

“Dr. Stigler is the quintessential physician-educator and is fully deserving of this recognition for teaching,” said Victor J. Thannickal, M.D., director of the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine. “I have no doubt that our medical students, residents and fellows at UAB will benefit from his extraordinary talents and dedication for many years to come.”

Stigler joined UAB as an assistant professor in 2012 and has since received numerous awards for his teaching excellence. Steve is the winner of the Outstanding Teacher Award from the internal medicine training program the past three years, as well as the Jack Durand Fulmer Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Pulmonary and Critical Care fellowship program. Stigler has also been recognized with the Gustavo Heudebert Award for contributions to the Internal Medicine Program.

“To have received these awards during his first two years at UAB is truly exceptional, and is testimony to his dedication to teaching at all levels,” Thannickal said.

J. David Sweatt, Ph.D.

Sweatt smallJ. David Sweatt, Ph.D.J. David Sweatt, Ph.D., Evelyn F. McKnight professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and director of the McKnight Institute, is the senior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in Research. Sweatt is an accomplished scientist who has pioneered the study of epigenetic mechanisms in the brain. 

“He has singlehandedly created a field that is now one of the most exciting areas in neuroscience, and promises to lead to entirely novel ways of thinking about the function of the brain,” said David G. Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., John N. Whitaker professor and chair of the Department of Neurology, who nominated Sweatt for the award. “He has relentlessly pursued a highly integrated approach to studying the fundamental mechanisms of memory, starting with cellular signaling pathways, and working his way down to single covalent molecular events. 

“Like many great ideas, the concept that memory was related to epigenetic change was dismissed as impossible early on, but, as a result of his work, is now widely accepted as of critical importance—a paradigm shift and a revolution in thought about brain function,” Standaert said. 

Sweatt has published in the highest-impact journals in the field, including 24 papers in the last three years, and his work has been cited more than 20,000 times. He’s the principal investigator on three R01 awards, along with a T32 and DARPA award.  

Sweatt also had a central role in developing the UAB Undergraduate Neuroscience Program, an honors major which has now grown to include 120 students in its rigorous coursework.

Yong Zhou, Ph.D.

Zhou smallYong Zhou, Ph.D.Yong Zhou, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, is the junior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in mentoring. Victor J. Thannickal, M.D., director of the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, said Zhou has distinguished himself as a key contributor to the education mission and as a “rising star” in research since joining the division in 2009.

Zhou is active in training postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, serving three as a primary mentor and another six as committee member.  He serves as a scientific advisor for junior faculty members in the Departments of Medicine and Pediatrics and as a member of the Career Development Advisory Committee.

“Yong is emerging as an energetic, enthusiastic, and talented teacher,” Thannickal said, adding that Zhou’s mentorship and teaching skills are exemplified in the research productivity and continued career development of his students and postdocs.

Zhou is an expert in fibroblast and extracellular matrix (ECM) mechanobiology in fibrotic lung diseases. He’s the principal investigator on an R01 grant and American Heart Association Grant-in-Aid award, and co- investigator on a P01 award. He has published 23 papers and recently received the American Thoracic Society Foundation Recognition Award for Outstanding Early Career Investigator. Zhou also received the competitive International Colloquium on Lung and Airway Fibrosis Young Investigator Award.

“I am confident his mentorship and leadership contributions will grow, and that he will remain a vital member of our research community, not only in the division and department, but at the university-wide level,” Thannickal said.