President's Research Council honors pair as Distinguished Researchers

Dr. Rhea Sumpter Jr. (left) and Dr. Deepak Nijhawan have been selected to receive the 2013 Distinguished Researcher Awards by the President’s Research Council.
Dr. Rhea Sumpter Jr. (left) and Dr. Deepak Nijhawan have been selected to receive the 2013 Distinguished Researcher Awards by the President’s Research Council. (David Gresham Photo)

By Deborah Wormser

The President’s Research Council (PRC) recently presented its 2013 Distinguished Researcher Awards to two physician-scientists: Dr. Deepak Nijhawan, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and Biochemistry, and Dr. Rhea Sumpter Jr., Instructor of Internal Medicine.

Each received a $65,000 award at the Council’s annual dinner, held May 14 on the Fourteenth Floor of the T. Boone Pickens Biomedical Building at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“This group was founded 28 years ago through the vision and generosity of UT Southwestern friends Cece Smith and Ford Lacy. To date, this organization has awarded more than $2.4 million in research funds contributed by its members, while providing ongoing opportunities for community friends to hear about some of the University’s most innovative research,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern.

“It is very gratifying to note that both of this year’s PRC winners are graduates of the UT Southwestern Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), which draws on the clinical and scientific strengths of our academic medical center to offer a combined M.D./Ph.D. degree program.”

Dr. Nijhawan, a Chicago native, earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Northwestern University and received his M.D./Ph.D. in 2005 from UT Southwestern.

He then completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, followed by fellowships at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and the nearby Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. 

He returned to UT Southwestern to launch an ambitious research program in the Department of Biochemistry that uses chemistry to identify new targets for lung cancer treatment.  

“My approach requires a diverse set of experts and would be impossible in most places, particularly for a newly independent investigator. UT Southwestern is one of the few places in the country where I can take this approach, in large part due to Biochemistry Chairman Dr. Steven McKnight, who integrated biology and chemistry before it was fashionable,” Dr. Nijhawan said. “Over the course of his tenure, Dr. McKnight has built a Department with all the required expertise in medicinal chemistry, proteomics, pharmacology, and high-throughput screening.”

In addition to thanking the PRC for its generous support, Dr. Nijhawan also acknowledged Nobel Laureate Dr. Michael Brown, Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease. Dr. Nijhawan’s first graduate school rotation was in the laboratory of Dr. Brown, who was Director of the MSTP at the time. There, the young researcher contributed to the cloning of the S2P gene involved in cholesterol homeostasis.

“Since I first met Mike Brown in 1996, without interruption, I have been the beneficiary of his tremendous insight and encouragement,” Dr. Nijhawan said.

Dr. Sumpter, a magna cum laude biochemistry graduate of Rice University, completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Argentina prior to arriving at UT Southwestern in 1998.

A 2006 MSTP graduate, he is a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society and received numerous other competitive awards while a student at UT Southwestern. The research he completed for his Ph.D. resulted in two first-author papers in the Journal of Virology and five other studies he co-wrote. 

He completed his internship and residency in internal medicine at UT Southwestern and was a fellow in Infectious Diseases and in the Physician Scientist Training Program concurrently. In 2009, he joined the laboratory of Dr. Beth Levine, Director of the Center for Autophagy Research. Dr. Levine, also Professor of Internal Medicine and Microbiology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, is world-renowned for her work on autophagy, a fundamental cellular housekeeping and recycling pathway.

In Dr. Levine’s lab, Dr. Sumpter co-wrote several studies on viruses and autophagy, including two published in Nature

In 2012, the National Institutes of Health awarded Dr. Sumpter a highly competitive Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award for a multiyear project he proposed to investigate novel host factors in the selective autophagy of viruses. That same year, he was promoted from postdoctoral fellow to Instructor.

“I’m delighted to be selected for this honor. The generous support of the President’s Research Council will be crucial as I begin my career as an independent investigator at UT Southwestern,” said Dr. Sumpter, who in particular thanked Dr. Levine for her invaluable support.

“My goal is to understand how our cells utilize autophagy to destroy viruses and to modulate inflammation. I hope that studying this novel arm of the innate immune system will lead to new therapies to fight infection and the uncontrolled inflammatory response now considered a driving force in many human diseases,” he added.

The Distinguished Researcher Awards are presented annually by the President’s Research Council, which is made up of community leaders interested in learning about and advancing medical research at UT Southwestern. Its membership fees support research by new faculty investigators. 

President’s Research Council members are invited to attend four lectures a year given by leading UT Southwestern researchers as well as an annual banquet honoring awardees. For membership information, contact the UTSW Office of Development at 214-648-2344.


Dr. Brown, a Regental Professor, holds The W. A. (Monty) Moncrief Distinguished Chair in Cholesterol and Arteriosclerosis Research, and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.

Dr. Levine holds the Charles Cameron Sprague Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science.

Dr. McKnight holds The Sam G. Winstead and F. Andrew Bell Distinguished Chair in Biochemistry, and the Distinguished Chair in Basic Biomedical Research.

Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.