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Two VUMC physician-scientists win Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awards

Jun. 21, 2021, 10:08 AM

Two physician-scientist Instructors in Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) — Jeeyeon Cha, MD, PhD, and Celestine Wanjalla, MD, PhD — are among 12 recipients of the 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) Career Award for Medical Scientists.

The highly competitive program provides $700,000 over five years to physician-scientists who are committed to academic careers as they transition from fellowship and postdoctoral positions to faculty service.

Cha’s award recognizes her research on sexual dimorphism in diabetes, while Wanjalla was recognized for her studies of the long-term immunologic effects of aging with HIV.

Jeeyeon Cha, MD, PhD

“This is an exceptionally prestigious national award, which recognizes those with impactful investigations at early career stages from all fields of medicine,” said W. Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, Hugh J. Morgan Professor and chair of the Department of Medicine.

“This award both recognizes outstanding accomplishment to date, but is meant to accelerate medical science by supporting, attracting and retaining individuals like Dr. Cha and Dr. Wanjalla to pursue careers that drive health care forward,” Rathmell said.

“We are so proud to have both of these physician-scientists be recognized with this award; both are terrific examples of the Harrison Society and the pathway to successfully making a career as a physician-scientist faculty member.”

Named after Tinsley Harrison, MD, Vanderbilt’s first chief resident in Medicine, the Harrison Society is dedicated to the preservation of science in clinical medicine and to the scientific literacy of physicians who use this knowledge at the bedside.

Cha and Wanjalla are the first women among five physician-scientists at VUMC who have received the BWF Career Award. This also is the first time two early-career faculty members from VUMC have received the award in the same year.

Celestine Wanjalla, MD, PhD

Cha was born in South Korea and grew up in Kentucky. She earned her PhD in Molecular & Developmental Biology and Reproductive Sciences at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 2013, and her MD from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in 2015.

After completing her residency in Internal Medicine at VUMC in 2017, Cha was a clinical fellow in the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism before joining the faculty in 2020. She serves as the 2020-21Chief Fellow of the Vanderbilt Physician Scientist Training Program, the Harrison Society, and is the primary author or co-author of 36 research publications.

“My research seeks to better understand why men and women have different risk for metabolic diseases, namely diabetes,” Cha said. “In my research, I will investigate sexually dimorphic cellular responses using powerful single cell sequencing technology to ultimately advance our efforts in risk stratification and personalized therapy for diabetes.

“I’m honored and grateful to receive this award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to further develop expertise in this exciting research area and to help launch my future research program at this critical career transition,” she said.

A native of Nairobi, Kenya, Wanjalla earned her MD and PhD in Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis in 2013 from the Sidney Kimmell Medical College and the Jefferson Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

After completing her residency in Internal Medicine at VUMC in 2015, she was a clinical fellow in the physician-scientist track and co-chief fellow in Infectious Diseases before joining the faculty in 2018. She is the primary author or co-author of 27 research publications.

“This is an exciting opportunity, and I am truly honored and humbled to be a recipient of this prestigious award,” Wanjalla said.

“It speaks volumes for the support that we have received from the institution including our mentors, the Harrison Society, Edge for Scholars, the Vanderbilt Studios and (Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research) grants to have been able to compete at the national level and bring two awards home.

“I look forward to the next few years,” Wanjalla said, “recognizing that this award has provided an opportunity for me to do translational research and use basic science research to try and understand immune drivers of non-communicable diseases such as atherosclerosis in people living with HIV.”

Previous BWF Career awardees from VUMC are Gautam (Jay) Bhave, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine and Cell & Developmental Biology; James Cassat, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Pediatrics, Biomedical Engineering, and Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology; and Alexander Bick, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Genetic Medicine.

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