Endowed Scholars program adds 3 gifted researchers

By Amanda Siegfried

April 2010

Three researchers joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 2009 as part of the unique and highly competitive Endowed Scholars Program in Medical Science.

The program, established in 1998 with $60 million in philanthropic funds for endowment, provides seed money and four-year support for early-career investigators to carry out independent, groundbreaking research projects. Each highly skilled basic-science or clinical researcher joins UT Southwestern as a tenure-track assistant professor.

Through the end of 2009, 57 investigators have launched their independent research careers at the medical center as part of the program.

UT Southwestern’s newest Endowed Scholars are (from left) Dr. Jen Liou, whose studies are aimed at developing a better understanding of how calcium is transported into cells; Dr. Uttam Tambar, who is developing new strategies to synthesize complex, biologically active molecules; and Dr. Jiang Wu, who is investigating how undifferentiated stem cells of mice develop into specific cell types.

“The Endowed Scholars Program represents a firm commitment from
UT Southwestern, and from our generous donors, to foster the success of talented scientists who are at the beginning of their careers as independent investigators,” said Dr. Eric Olson, chairman of molecular biology at
UT Southwestern, who directs the program.

Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, UT Southwestern president, said, “The donors who make this program possible have shown tremendous insight and foresight. Their investment in these researchers has enhanced UT Southwestern’s reputation for excellence. Since the inception of this program, four scholars have become investigators with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and overall, scholars have garnered more than $73 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health.”

Members of the 2009-2013 class of endowed scholars are:

W.W. Caruth, Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research

Dr. Uttam Tambar, assistant professor of biochemistry, earned his doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology after graduating from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics. Before joining the UT Southwestern faculty, Dr. Tambar completed a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at Columbia University, where he was supported by a National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award.

Dr. Tambar is developing new strategies to synthesize complex, biologically active molecules. Traditional methods of chemical synthesis have relied on building complex molecules in a series of separate steps. Dr. Tambar is interested in developing new chemistry methods that can be used to construct such molecules in a single operational step. The result could be more economical and less wasteful chemical processes that have applications in drug discovery and development, as well as in advancing knowledge in basic cell biology.

Virginia Murchison Linthicum Scholar in Medical Research

Dr. Jiang Wu, assistant professor of physiology and developmental biology, received a Ph.D. in molecular biology from UT Austin after earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in genetics from Fudan University in China. She completed postdoctoral work at Stanford University as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute research associate.

Dr. Wu is investigating how undifferentiated stem cells of mice develop into specific cell types, using brain stem cells as a model system. Understanding how stem cells in the brain are regulated and how they develop could lead to methods to control their growth and differentiation and serve as the basis of new therapies for neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and spinal-cord injuries.

Sowell Family Scholar in Medical Research

Dr. Jen Liou, assistant professor of physiology, earned her doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of California, San Francisco after majoring in zoology at National Taiwan University. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular pharmacology at Stanford University, and was a research associate in chemical and systems biology there before joining the UT Southwestern faculty.

Dr. Liou’s investigations are aimed at developing a better understanding of how calcium is transported into cells. Calcium influx is essential to activate lymphocytes key to immune responses to infection; allows nerve cells in the brain to fire; and enables muscle cells to contract. As a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Liou worked with the Alliance for Cellular Signaling, and discovered a novel cell-signaling pathway that controls calcium influx. Her work has applications in the search for new treatments for such conditions as allergy, autoimmune disorders, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

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Dr. Olson is director of the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Center for Basic Research in Cancer and the Nearburg Family Center for Basic Research in Pediatric Oncology. He holds the Pogue Distinguished Chair in Research on Cardiac Birth Defects, the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Science, and the Annie and Willie Nelson Professorship in Stem Cell 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.