February 19, 2020

Awards honor research staff’s crucial contributions

Laboratory and administrative personnel at VUMC were honored last week for research excellence during the 16th annual Research Staff Awards luncheon.

At the Research Staff Awards are, from left, Larry Marnett, PhD, Alan Simmons, Sean Schaffer, Kristina Williams, and Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD. (photo by Donn Jones)

Laboratory and administrative personnel at Vanderbilt University Medical Center were honored last week for research excellence during the 16th annual Research Staff Awards luncheon at the Kimpton Aertson Hotel in Nashville.

Recipients of the 2019 Research Staff Awards are:

  • Sean Schaffer, senior research specialist in the Cell Imaging Shared Resource (CISR), who received the Award for Excellence in Research Contributing to Multi-Investigator Teams;
  • Alan “Joey” Simmons, MLI, senior research specialist and lab manager in the laboratory of Ken Lau, PhD, in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, recipient of the Edward E. Price Jr. Award for Excellence in Basic Research; and
  • Kristina Williams, RN, CCRP, research nurse specialist III in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Center for Drug Safety and Immunology, who received the Vivien A. Thomas Award for Excellence in Clinical Research.

Schaffer, an expert in a wide range of microscopy modalities, is an essential part of the CISR and collaborates with researchers across the university and medical center, wrote CISR Managing Director Jenny Schafer, PhD, in her nomination letter.

He handles much of CISR’s IT needs, manages the center’s billing and accounting and during the past two years was the main contact and planner for the transition to the iLab core management application.

“Sean strives for excellence in everything that he does,” said Schafer, research assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. His knowledge and expertise make him “a unique resource” for more than 500 researchers who rely on the microscopy services provided by the CISR, she added.

Simmons, who has a master’s degree in Laboratory Investigation, was nominated by Lau, an associate professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in whose lab Simmons has worked since 2013. “He has brought many innovative ideas to my lab,” Lau wrote in his nomination letter.

Simmons’ technical expertise has helped attract around $25 million in grant funding for three large basic research programs in cancer and gastrointestinal disease, and “he has had multiple first-author publications in high-impact journals,” Lau wrote.

Simmons’ award is named for the late Edward E. Price Jr., an internationally known research assistant in the Department of Biochemistry and in the Cardiovascular Physiology Core who died in 2007. Members of Price’s family attended the luncheon.

Williams, a Certified Clinical Research Professional, was nominated by Elizabeth Phillips, MD, director of Personalized Immunology in the Oates Institute for Experimental Therapeutics.

In her letter, Phillips praised Williams for “invaluable” contributions to her group’s translational research on Stevens-Johnson Syndrome/toxic epidermal necrolysis (SJS/TEN), a potentially fatal immune-mediated adverse drug reaction.

In addition to coordinating a 24-site clinical trial examining SJS/TEN treatments and supportive care, Williams helped organize two international meetings on the subject. “Kristina is a natural leader,” Phillips wrote, as well as an outstanding communicator and dedicated patient advocate.

Her award is named for Vivien A. Thomas, a pioneering surgical technician who began his career at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in the 1930s.

Each Research Staff Awardee received an award check and crystal trophy. The luncheon was hosted by Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, VUMC’s Executive Vice President for Research, and Lawrence Marnett, PhD, dean of Basic Sciences in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.