August 20, 2004

The Aschners make Vanderbilt a family affair

Featured Image

Four members of the Aschner family have close ties to Vanderbilt — through careers or academics. Left to right: Eiten, Nadav, Michael, Amir, Judy and Yael Aschner. (photo by Dana Johnson)

The Aschners make Vanderbilt a family affair

by Carole H. Bartoo and Lisa Peper

When Judy and Michael Aschner’s daughter, Yael, began applying to medical schools, Judy suggested she apply to Vanderbilt.

After visiting the campus and attending Second Look weekend, Yael knew that Vanderbilt was where she wanted to be. Little did Judy and Michael know that Vanderbilt was also in their future.

As her daughter entered her second year of medical school, Judy Aschner, M.D., joined the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt as the director of the division of Neonatology. It’s a move she certainly didn’t see happening a year ago.

“When we brought Yael to Nashville with U-Haul in tow last August, it was my first visit to the Vanderbilt campus,” Judy said. “Dr. Strauss had asked me to spend part of a day with the Pediatrics department while we were in town. I knew they were looking for a new director of Neonatology, but I wasn’t looking for a new job.”

“I couldn’t help but be impressed with what I saw and the people I met. I was also well aware of the prestigious history of the Vanderbilt division of Neonatology under the leadership of Drs. Mildred Stahlman and Robert Cotton. I was convinced to take a more serious look at the job in conjunction with our next trip to Nashville to visit Yael,” Judy said. “By this time, Dr. Strauss realized that my husband, Michael, was the icing on the cake of this dual academic family, and the double recruitment efforts began in earnest. Our next recruitment visit occurred in conjunction with Parent’s Weekend, and the rest is history.”

Judy comes to the Children’s Hospital from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she was the director of the Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Training Program, a professor of Pediatrics and associate in Surgical Sciences.

“Judy is a nationally known leader in neonatology who’s a triple threat: excellent patient care, clinical research, and lab work,” said Arnold Strauss, M.D., James C. Overall Chair of the department of Pediatrics and medical director of the Children’s Hospital. “She is involved in a very important area of research: lung vascular development in neonates.”

Aschner’s move to Nashville is a boon to the Children’s Hospital in more ways than one. Her husband, Michael (Miki) Aschner, Ph.D., has recently been named the Gray E.B. Stahlman Professor of Neurosciences and professor of Pediatrics at VUMC.

“Miki is an international expert on neurotoxicity of heavy metals,” Strauss said. “And that’s important in this era of food chain contamination and concern about various preservatives and drugs.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise for the family was when Michael and Judy’s oldest son, Eitan, decided to attend the Vanderbilt School of Engineering.

“I had encouraged Eitan to apply to Vanderbilt. To humor me, he finally did, one day before the deadline,” Judy said. “During our visit in March, we brought our three sons down to Nashville for the first time. Eitan arranged a tour of the Vanderbilt campus and an interview with the director of Undergraduate Admissions for the Engineering School. I could tell he was very impressed. Nevertheless, it was a surprise to all of us when Eitan announced he had decided to attend Vanderbilt. For Miki and me, having all four of our children with us in Nashville is a fabulous and unexpected bonus.”

The Aschners also have two younger sons, Nadav and Amir, who will be attending Brentwood High School.

“It’s amazing how three separate decisions have brought us all together,” Yael said. “We’ve always had a close relationship, so I’m excited that we’ll all be together.”

As Yael begins classes and Eitan gears up for his first semester, Michael and Judy are settling in to their new roles at Vanderbilt.

In addition to having their independent areas of research, they also work together on several basic and clinical research projects. Judy is a co-investigator on Michael’s R01 investigating the neurotoxicity of methylmercury in a model of neonatal rat astrocytes. Michael is a co-investigator on a clinical trial Judy recently submitted to the NIH to investigate whether infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) who require prolonged parenteral (intravenous) nutrition are receiving potentially toxic amounts of the trace element, manganese.

“Parenteral nutrition solutions for infants contain large amounts of manganese,” Judy explained, “and many of the control mechanisms for regulating manganese levels in the tissues, and especially the brain, may not be functioning optimally in sick or premature babies. This clinical research project will determine whether infants receiving prolonged intravenous nutrition have evidence of increased manganese uptake in the brain.”

Manganese is a paramagnetic element that can be detected by MRI. Thus, the Aschners have already enlisted the collaboration and expertise of the Vanderbilt Center for Imaging Sciences on this new joint research endeavor.

Judy Aschner succeeds Cotton, who directed the Neonatology division since 1989, and Stahlman, who founded the division and opened Vanderbilt’s first neonatal intensive care unit in 1961. It was the first such unit in the United States to use respiratory therapy for infants with damaged lungs.