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February 22, 2007

6 faculty honored with chancellor's awards

Winners of the 2007 chancellor’s distinguished research and public service awards for faculty were announced last week.

Each faculty honoree will receive a $2,000 cash prize. In addition, each research award winner will receive a $3,000 grant to support his or her research, and the public service honoree will receive a $3,000 grant to support her teaching.

This year’s winners of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award are:

• Alejandro M. de la Fuente, a professor in the Department of History in the School of Arts and Sciences (A&S);

• Graham Hatfull, Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, A&S;

• Jana M. Iverson, a professor in the Department of Psychology, A&S;

• William E. Klunk, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, and

• Chester A. Mathis, a professor of radiology in the medical school.

Hatfull, Klunk and Mathis were honored in the senior scholar category, which recognizes “an outstanding and continuing record of research and scholarly activity.”

De la Fuente and Iverson were honored as junior scholars “whose exceptional early contributions have demonstrated great potential and have already produced a measure of international standing.”

Also last week, Katherine D. Seelman, professor and associate dean of disability programs in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS), was named the winner of the 2007 Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Service Award, which honors faculty for outstanding contributions to the community.

Winners of the chancellor’s awards for staff excellence also were announced. See related story this issue.

(Profiles of this year’s Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award winners were published in the Feb. 8 University Times.)

Winners of the 2007 teaching, research and public service Awards — as well as other distinguished faculty, staff, alumni and students — will be recognized tomorrow, Feb. 23, during Pitt’s 31st annual honors convocation, beginning at 2 p.m. in the Carnegie Music Hall.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg sent congratulatory letters to the winners, citing some of their accomplishments derived from information and letters of recommendation provided in support of the winners’ nominations.

“You are widely regarded as the best scholar of colonial Cuba working today,” Nordenberg wrote in a letter notifying Alejandro de la Fuente of his research award. “Your publication record of a book, 34 scholarly articles, and 16 shorter pieces, as well as your service as editor of two special issues of scholarly journals are particularly noteworthy. It is exciting to see that your work has been published in five languages and in eight countries.”

Nordenberg called de la Fuente’s research “impressive in its depth and breadth. You have been described by your peers as ‘among those very special young scholars who … demonstrate a combination of historical imagination, literary skills and intellectual poise.’ Your work has been recognized and supported by a varied list of important foundations and agencies, including the Harry Frank Guggenheim, Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations; the U.S. Institute of Peace; the National Endowment for the Humanities; National Science Foundation and Social Science Research Council.”

The chancellor also noted that de la Fuente authored “A Nation for All: Race, Inequality and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba,” which won the 2003 Book Prize from the Latin American and Caribbean section of the Southern Historical Foundation as the best book published in the United States on Latin American history.

De la Fuente specializes in Latin American and Caribbean history, comparative slavery and race relations and Atlantic history.

He earned his PhD in history and a graduate certificate in Latin American studies at Pitt in 1996.

“Although this award was given to me as an individual, I think it also recognizes the excellent research work that faculty and students do in our history department,” de la Fuente told the University Times. “Research is never an individual process; it is informed by the conversations, exchanges and debates that we participate in. It has been my privilege to be part of this collective, where new ideas are constantly and passionately debated. This context is a crucial component of whatever contribution I have been able to make. After all, I am a product of this program. In other words, my colleagues deserve this award as much as I do.”

Graham Hatfull is recognized internationally for his pioneering research involving Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. He has developed research tools that are used in M. tuberculosis research worldwide.

Nordenberg wrote to Hatfull, “Your contributions to the field can be noted in each of the following: 1) the utilization of a stable integrating vector with a broad host range such as M. tuberculosis, 2) the use of phage derivatives as a diagnostic tool that can rapidly assess drug susceptibilities of an M. tuberculosis infection and 3) the development of a method to generate targeted gene disruption in M. tuberculosis.”

Hatfull’s research papers have been published in Cell, Molecular Cell, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Sciences USA, among other journals.

In 2002, he was named one of 20 Howard Hughes Medical Institute professors, a position that the institute recently renewed. He was named an American Academy of Microbiology fellow in 2003 and a National Academy of Sciences teaching fellow in 2004.

“It is marvelous to note,” the chancellor wrote in his letter to Hatfull, “that in 1993 you received the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award (junior division) and today you are being named as the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award winner in the senior category.”

Hatfull told the University Times, “I obviously was very pleased to have won this award. But I was pleased not just for myself, but for my entire research team, for the many people who have helped over the years in the scientific endeavors of the lab: post docs, faculty colleagues, graduate students, undergraduates, staff — so I think of this as a shared delight.

“I understand why there are different awards in the teaching, public service and research categories. That to me says that the University considers them as equally important parts of its mission,” he added.

“But, frankly, I don’t like the idea of separate awards,” he said, because teaching, research and public service are inexorably intertwined. “We are a major research university, but we are not a research institute that does only research. Teaching and service are really important parts of what we do. The separation of teaching and research is an old model. Let’s put it behind us. If we continue to look at things that way, if our research does not enhance our other activities of teaching and service in unison, we’re off the mark, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do.”

Jana Iverson has developed a systematic program of research exploring the relationship between hand gestures and language acquisition. “In particular, you have carried out fascinating work showing that infants first form gesture-word combinations prior to forming word-word combinations,” Nordenberg wrote to Iverson. “Moreover, you have used this gesture-word relationship to discover differences in the way gestures and speech are used by children who are delayed in language learning.”

For example, Iverson has shown that the gestures of children with Down syndrome convey the same meanings as the words they speak, whereas gestures of children developing language at a normal pace augment and complement their spoken words.

“In recent work, you are pursuing the developmental precursors to the gesture/speech relation by examining how infants use their hands and mouth prior to the onset of gestures and speech,” Nordenberg wrote.

“You have discovered that vocalizations that are syllabic and speech-like in nature are more likely to be coordinated with hand activity than with other limb movements,” Nordenberg continued. “This observation has led you to explore the possibility that atypicalities in vocal and motor behaviors might be early markers of Autistic Spectrum Disorders, markers that could be used to identify children at risk for an autistic diagnosis in infancy. Your special ability to ground theoretical work in application issues promises real and unique contributions to what we know about language acquisition in both normal and developmentally delayed populations.”

Iverson has published a number of book chapters and articles in journals, such as Psychological Science, Child Development, the Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, the Journal of Consciousness Studies and Nature.

She was unavailable for comment due to a death in the family.

The chancellor wrote to Bill Klunk, “As a physician-scientist, you have been recognized for your pioneering work on human amyloid imaging in the living central nervous system and its significance in the development and therapy of Alzheimer’s disease. You have been described by your peers as being at the very top of this field and as the single most influential person in the world in the imaging of dementia. Your work with Dr. Chester Mathis in the area of PET (positron emission tomography) amyloid labeling is considered the single most important contribution in the history of the field and the greatest clinical advance in Alzheimer’s disease over the past 10 years,” he said.

“Your work guides the development of amyloid tracers in laboratories throughout the world and offers great promise in identifying the earliest changes that characterize the Alzheimer’s disease process in living people, before the onset of clinical abnormalities,” Nordenberg continued. “Your accomplishments have facilitated the evaluation of potential disease-modifying therapies, which are now entering clinical trials. It is recognized that these therapies will target amyloid production and clearance at the earliest stages of disease development, when the chances of successful therapy and retention of brain function are greatest.”

Klunk traces his interest in becoming a researcher to the day he won a high school “Chemistry Day” competition at Shippensburg State College. “I had been accepted to Shippensburg as an accounting major, but the chair of the chemistry department, Jack Wilson, pulled me aside to discuss a career in chemistry,” Klunk told the University Times. “I took his advice, became a chemistry major and never regretted where that advice took me. The moral for students: Pay attention to what your advisers suggest,” he said.

“My research and clinical work in Alzheimer’s disease are central to everything I do,” Klunk continued. “My clinical work focuses my research on the issues most critical and most timely to patients and their families. My research provides an opportunity to involve junior faculty and students in mentoring relationships that hopefully go beyond the research questions and back to the clinical issues on which the research is based.”

The chancellor’s research award carries special importance at Pitt, he said, by recognizing the importance of that mission.

“I thought that the chancellor and the award selection committee must have a … fortunate problem with all of the worthy faculty here at Pitt who could have received this award,” Klunk said. “I am very pleased and flattered to receive the award, which is at the top of the list of awards that I value. But, to be honest, my initial reaction was relief,” Klunk said. “This was because my close research colleague in the amyloid imaging work and fishing buddy, Chet Mathis, and I were nominated together.”

The two researchers have a friendly competition in the trout streams and beyond, Klunk said, and Mathis had received his congratulatory letter from the chancellor a day earlier. “I knew I’d have to eat crow for quite a while if my letter never came. Now, I have the added pleasure of sharing this honor with an equally worthy good friend in Chet Mathis — not to mention the fact that the only thing I’ll have to listen to again is how many more fish he catches.”

Nordenberg pointed out that Chet Mathis is one of world’s foremost radio chemists and the leading international authority on the development of radioactive tracer imaging probes and imaging of the brain with PET.

“Your pioneering work has shaped the neuro-receptor imaging field in pivotal ways, including the development of PET radioligands for the serotonin and dopamine receptor systems,” the chancellor wrote.

“The UPMC PET Research Center, which you direct, is at the cutting edge of imaging science. Together with Dr. William Klunk, you have developed new positron-labeled amyloid imaging agents, in particular Pittsburgh Compound B, for use in the detection of plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease in living patients.

“Pittsburgh Compound B has become the ‘gold standard’ by which all other newly developed amyloid agents are judged,” wrote Nordenberg. “Its impact is currently being studied around the world, and could speed progress in developing medications to counteract the development of Alzheimer’s disease. This work has been honored by numerous awards and international recognition, including listing in Discover magazine’s 100 top science stories of 2002 and by Nature Medicine as the most highly cited research on Alzheimer’s disease in 2004.”

Mathis said, “I am pleased that the research that Bill Klunk and I labored over for more than 10 years has been recognized by the chancellor. Even more importantly, I believe the award also recognizes the efforts and essential contributions from numerous faculty and staff at the PET facility and departments of radiology and psychiatry who were instrumental in helping us achieve success in our research to develop a useful amyloid imaging agent. Bill and I could not have been successful in these efforts on our own.”

Mathis said Klunk approached him a dozen years ago to help in a project to develop amyloid imaging agents. “His research project had stalled because he did not have the expertise to take his in-vitro studies on into living systems,” Mathis said. “I was busy with many other projects at the time, but this one caught my attention because I had tried to develop similar amyloid imaging agents eight years previously at UC-Berkeley and had failed to make much progress.

“I am glad that Bill Klunk transmitted to me his desire and resolve 12 years ago to do what was necessary to make a success of a research concept and transform that concept into useful imaging agents that will hopefully benefit patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.”

SHRS’s Kate Seelman, winner of the 2007 Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Service Award, was recognized for national, state and local service on behalf of people with disabilities.

Seelman serves on a number of boards and committees, such as the U.S. International Council on Disabilities, the National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy and the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, and on the editorial board of the World Health Organization’s “World Report on Disability and Rehabilitation.”

“Your commitment is also reflected in your scholarly record and, most especially, in your greatly valued teaching within the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences,” the chancellor wrote.

Seelman was appointed to the Pennsylvania Rehabilitation Advisory Council in 2004, and she chairs the City-County Task Force on Disabilities. In 2002, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette included her in its “People Who Made a Difference” list.

“Your supporters for this award note your ability to bring people together to focus on problems of common interest, your incorporation of policy and advocacy into all of your classes, and as one who serves as the principal ‘bridge’ for the University to the greater community on issues of relevance to people with disabilities,” Nordenberg wrote.

Seelman told the University Times, “I was pleased for me and for the entire community of people who have worked to include people with disabilities in the diversity mix.”

She said that chief among the influences and “value promoters” that led her to public service in her career were her mother, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela and her religious background.

“The University has recognized the importance of public service through support of this and other awards, activities and events,” Seelman said. “The chancellor emphasized in his letter my role as a bridge between the community and the University. The idea of a ‘public good,’ which transcends individuals and sectors of society, informs my teaching, research and publications — for example, the idea of inclusive public education.”

—Peter Hart

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