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Velez Edwards named to Women’s Health Research leadership

Jun. 19, 2018, 10:10 AM

Digna R. Velez Edwards, PhD, has been named director of Women’s Health Research, succeeding longtime director and founder, Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD, associate dean of Clinical and Translational Scientist Development and professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Hartmann founded Women’s Health Research in 2006 as a unit of the Institute for Medicine and Public Health. It is home to training grants, individual grant facilitation, collaborative multisite research, and policy level activities.

“Dr. Hartmann arrived at a pivotal time to reformulate and grow the visibility of women’s health research at Vanderbilt,” said Robert Dittus, MD, MPH, Executive Vice President, Public Health and Health Care and Director of the Institute for Medicine and Public Health. “Through contributions such as building an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Evidence-based Practice Center focused largely on evidence to inform prevention and care for women, gaining national recognition of our National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Building Interdisciplinary Research in Women’s Health K12 career development program, and engaging policy related to the health status of the women of our state, Dr. Hartmann established our reputation for getting answers that matter for women and their care providers.”

Digna Velez Edwards, PhD

Velez Edwards, associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, director of Division of Quantitative Science, and former associate director of Women’s Health Research, is a national leader in genetic determinants of reproductive and gynecologic health. She is recognized for skill in building collaborations, in contributing to the work of transdisciplinary teams and for mentorship across the full spectrum of career development.

“I am honored to serve as the new director of Women’s Health Research,” Velez Edwards said. “Through this new role, my hope is to enhance engagement across the diverse women’s health researchers currently at VUMC and to provide mentoring and a community for investigators seeking careers in women’s health.”

Hartmann notes, “Women’s health research has steadily built momentum since the 1980s when I began my research career. Federally-funded studies are now mandated to include women. We are clear that women’s health is far broader than reproductive function or conditions that affect only or predominantly women. We are entering an exciting era in which sex, gender, and individual genetic factors can be robustly examined as influences on almost every aspect of health and health care from cellular function to drug metabolism, and from accuracy of diagnosis to how society and culture influence health. Dr. Velez Edwards is an ideal leader to drive continued broadening of the content of research in the center and new connections among our areas of strength.”

Born in Panama City, Panama, Velez Edwards earned her Bachelor of Science degrees, MS degree in Applied Statistics, and PhD in Human Genetics degree from Vanderbilt University. She received her postdoctoral training at the University of Miami and in 2010 returned to join the faculty. She was promoted to associate professor in 2015.

In addition to previously serving as associate director of WHR, Velez Edwards is currently the associate program director for the Building Interdisciplinary Research in Women’s Health K12 career development program. She is also an investigator and active member of the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, the Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center, and the Institute of Medicine and Public Health.

“We are aiming to systematically cross interdisciplinary boundaries to study the biology of sex and gender differences at all levels of basic through translational science. While multidisciplinary ‘team science’ is lauded as the logical response to cross-cutting challenges of this scale, few of the nation’s researchers are prepared to work outside of the specific disease or model on which they focus. Vanderbilt’s unique culture and pool of talented investigators makes us exceptionally strong to pursue the mission of the center,” says Velez Edwards.

She has published extensively in women’s health and genomics research and is a recently named Chancellor Faculty Fellow at Vanderbilt.

Velez Edwards’ work focuses on identifying and understanding genetic risk factors for complex diseases with a specific interest in women’s health and reproductive outcomes and evaluating the role of genetic ancestry in disease risk. Her studies leverage the rich phenotypic data available from electronic health record biorepositories like BioVU and have recently focused on building resources to conduct large-scale genetics studies of uterine fibroids. The broader goals of her research are to advance women’s health research in the area of large-scale genomics and precision medicine.

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