Vitetta chosen as Piper Professor

By Kristen Holland Shear / April 21-30, 2011

What makes a good teacher?

“First and foremost, you have to care,” said Dr. Ellen Vitetta, director of the Cancer Immunobiology Center. “You have to make the students feel that they are part of a teaching/learning team, whether it’s one-on-one or in a lecture hall with 300 students. They need to be excited by the subject material and realize that they will build their careers on the foundation of what they learn.

“You also have to teach them practical skills involved in becoming a good scientist or physician – they have to learn to think. Good communication is absolutely key.”

Dr. Ellen Vitetta

Dr. Vitetta could be describing herself. That’s why the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation of San Antonio named her a Piper Professor recently.

The award, created in 1958, recognizes teachers in Texas colleges, universities and medical/graduate schools who are devoted to their professions and who have made a special impact on their students and the community. Ten awards are given annually. Each award includes a certificate of merit, a gold pin and an honorarium of $5,000.

Dr. Vitetta, professor of immunology and microbiology, is the 10th faculty member to be named a Piper Professor while at UT Southwestern. She has received UT Southwestern’s own Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award from medical students 15 times. She also has received the Basic Educator Award and was chosen as a founding member of both the UT Southwestern Academy of Teachers and the UT System's Academy of Health Science Education.

The East Coast transplant oversaw the medical school’s Fundamentals of Immunology course for 19 years and is a past program chair of the Immunology Graduate Program in the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She currently teaches in four graduate programs and has five student trainees in her laboratory. Over the years, she has trained 34 graduate students, including Dr. Linda Buck, the recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, and has mentored hundreds more. She also has trained more than 60 fellows, most of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in academia or industry.

“My graduate students are taught that the most important thing is to ask a good scientific question regardless of the technologies that it will take to answer that question. After that, it’s all about experimental design, controls and repeats,” she said. “Often they have to learn completely new technologies to answer the question, forcing them to move outside their comfort zones.

“Our lab mantra is: ‘The devil is in the details,’ and nothing could be more true.”

Dr. Vitetta said teaching has helped with her own research and the design of clinical trials.

“For instance, one idea, a new platform to develop vaccines, came from a very simple concept in immunology that I have taught for years,” she said. “Conversely, the research has helped me enormously with the teaching because I know how to link basic concepts into a meaningful clinical setting.”

One of the most highly cited researchers in the country, Dr. Vitetta is known for her work characterizing B lymphocytes. She and her colleague, Dr. Jonathan Uhr, now professor emeritus of the Cancer Immunobiology Center, first characterized the antigen-specific receptors on B cells. She was also the co-discoverer of Interleukin-4 (IL-4), an important molecule that helps regulate many cells, both within and outside the immune system. Her group was the first to show that IL-4 was involved in antibody class switching.

Dr. Vitetta has spent many years creating and developing immunotoxins to treat patients with several types of cancer. More than 400 patients have been treated and several of her immunotoxins have been outlicensed for larger clinical trials. Most recently, Dr. Vitetta and her colleagues developed and completed the first human clinical trial of a recombinant vaccine for the deadly toxin ricin – a potential bioterrorism threat. The vaccine, known as RiVax, recently received an orphan drug designation from the Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Vitetta is a past president of the American Association of Immunologists and a recipient of both its Outstanding Mentor Award and its Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

A member of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, she said that being named a Piper Professor is particularly meaningful to her because her peers at UT Southwestern nominated her for the honor.

“While I’m all for special effects and videotaped lectures, in the end it’s the teacher-student dynamic that has to work,” she said. “Teaching involves far more than showing up in a lecture room and delivering a PowerPoint. One has to engage students and excite them about the material even if it is tedious and complex at times. I want them to realize that it’s not just about the exams but also about building a firm foundation for their future careers.”

Previous Piper Professor winners still on faculty at UT Southwestern include: Dr. Eugene Jones (2009), chairman of physician assistant studies; Dr. James A. Richardson (2008), professor of pathology, molecular biology and plastic surgery; and Dr. Erwin Thal (2000), professor of surgery. Other UT Southwestern winners in years past include Dr. James Hudspeth (1994), cell biology and neuroscience; Dr. Alan Pierce (1985), internal medicine; Dr. Jack Reynolds (1976), radiology; Dr. Gladys Fashena (1974), pediatrics; Dr. Bruce Fallis (1973), pathology; and Dr. Hal Weathersby (1967), anatomy.

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Dr. Vitetta holds the Scheryle Simmons Patigian Distinguished Chair in Cancer Immunobiology.