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Nominata Award winners: Where are they now?

Nominata where are they now 2023 header
Past winners of the Nominata Award include (left to right, top row): Andrew Zinn, M.D., Ph.D.; Charles Stenman, Ph.D.; (bottom row) Rodney Infante, M.D., Ph.D.; Nick Grishin, Ph.D.; and Sheryl Smith, Ph.D.
Andrew Zinn, M.D., Ph.D., Dean of the UT Southwestern Graduate School
Andrew Zinn, M.D., Ph.D., Dean of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, won the Nominata Award in 1988.

Many winners of the Nominata Award – the highest honor bestowed upon a Ph.D. student of UT Southwestern’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences – have gone on to lead esteemed biomedical careers that progressed from postdoctoral researcher to academic or industry scientist to professor or division leader.

Andrew Zinn, M.D., Ph.D., Dean of the Graduate School and a Nominata winner himself in 1988, is not surprised at the success.

“We have 50 to 100 students graduate each year,” Dr. Zinn said. “The best students from this large pool are nominated, and the best of the best are chosen as Nominata winners.”

The Nominata, the highest honor for academic and research accomplishment from the Graduate School to a student, began in 1980 as the Outstanding Student Award presented by the Graduate Student Organization. In its early years, the award name changed to its current moniker, based on a plural of the Latin word “nominatum” (something that is named), perhaps to reflect that students are nominated rather than self-submitting, said UTSW University Archivist Kendall Martin.

“I hope that the Nominata Award, highlighted by a campuswide seminar by the winner, inspires other UTSW graduate students to achieve similar success in their Ph.D. studies and subsequent careers.”

The first Nominata recipient was Mary Elizabeth “Pila” Estess (Siegelman), Ph.D., in 1980, then a doctoral candidate in microbiology, for her work on antibody structures and the genetic basis of their diversity. Her adviser, the late Donald Capra, Ph.D., Professor of Microbiology and Internal Medicine, praised not only her work in learning a difficult technique but also her dedication in teaching it to other students. Dr. Estess went on to work at Stanford University, in industry, then on the faculty of UTSW before leaving in 2014.

Today, the Committee on Graduate School Awards, comprising the School’s faculty, evaluates and selects the nominees. The recipient receives a monetary award and the honor of presenting their research to the UTSW community as part of a University Lecture Series. 

“We look at the impact of the research, the originality, the degree to which the student did the work, and their ability to communicate,” Dr. Zinn explained of the selection process.

Sheryl Smith, Ph.D.
Sheryl Smith, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, called receiving the honor in 1983 her best achievement as a graduate student.
Rodney Infante, M.D., Ph.D.
The 2008 winner, Rodney Infante, M.D., Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern, said the award helped clarify plans for his scientific career.

“For me, the Nominata Award validated my approach to science taught by my mentors,” said Rodney Infante, M.D., Ph.D., the 2008 awardee. Now an Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and in the Center for Human Nutrition at UT Southwestern, he studies the mechanisms of cachexia, a wasting condition related to several diseases. “This recognition cemented how I would proceed with my scientific career,” Dr. Infante said.

He completed his graduate work under Nobel Laureates Michael Brown, M.D., and Joseph Goldstein, M.D., using a combination of biochemical and molecular biological techniques to study how cholesterol is transported out of a cell structure called a lysosome in disease and in health. Dr. Brown is Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease and Professor of Molecular Genetics and Internal Medicine, while Dr. Goldstein is Chair of Molecular Genetics and Professor of Internal Medicine.

Sheryl Smith, Ph.D., who won the Nominata in 1983, called receiving the honor her best achievement as a graduate student. Dr. Smith’s graduate work looked at mechanisms underlying the onset of puberty. Now a Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, she studies the mechanisms of changes in mood and learning at puberty, along with “synapse pruning,” a drastic reduction in brain connections that happens at the same time, which is necessary for optimal brain function.

Among other academic careers of past Nominata winners are Jared Rutter, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Utah, and Nick Grishin, Ph.D., Professor of Biophysics and Biochemistry at UTSW. Dr. Grishin uses modern computational methods to build genetic maps of moths and butterflies.

Charles Sentman, Ph.D.
Charles Sentman, Ph.D., Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Dartmouth University, also received the Nominata Award while at UT Southwestern.
Nick Grishin, Ph.D.
UT Southwestern’s Nick Grishin, Ph.D., who won the Nominata in 1998, studies the genetics of butterflies or moths to learn more about how proteins function in different species.

Another is Charles Sentman, Ph.D., Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Dartmouth University, who was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2022 for his work using immune cell receptors and the molecules that bind to them as a basis for therapeutics. John “Trey” Fondon III, Ph.D., who served on the UTSW faculty before becoming a Lab Director at Othram, a forensics company near Houston that specializes in using genetic technology to solve cold cases, is taking the industry route in a unique but growing field of science.

“I hope that the Nominata Award, highlighted by a campuswide seminar by the winner, inspires other UTSW graduate students to achieve similar success in their Ph.D. studies and subsequent careers,” Dr. Zinn said.

Nominata Award winners through the years

Year Name Current or last known position Program
2022 Rui Chen, Ph.D. Genome engineer scientist, Colossal Biosciences Cell and Molecular Biology
2021 Ian Boys, Ph.D. Postdoctoral researcher, University of Utah Immunology
2020 Jin Suk Park, Ph.D. Research scientist, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Cancer Biology
2019 Mingjian Du, Ph.D. Postdoctoral researcher, Columbia University, Zuker Lab Integrative Molecular and Biomedical Sciences
2018 Chelsea Hepler, Ph.D. Postdoctoral researcher, Northwestern University Integrative Molecular and Biomedical Sciences
2017 Ryan Golden, Ph.D. Director, Translational Medicine Lead, AstraZeneca Integrative Biology
2016 Zhejian Ji, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Laboratory of Protein Machines, Westlake University, Hangzhou, China Genetics, Development & Disease
2015 Katie Schaukowitch, Ph.D. Basic life research scientist, Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine Neuroscience
2014 Jiaxi (Chris) Wu, Ph.D. Staff scientist, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Genetics & Development
2013 Yuxiao Wang, Ph.D. Co-founder and Senior Director of Discovery Research, Myeloid Therapeutics Molecular Biophysics
2012 Tina Han, Ph.D. Associate Principal Scientist, Dewpoint Therapeutics Biological Chemistry
2011 Ying Liu, Ph.D.* Professor, Institute of Molecular Medicine, College of Future Technology, Peking University Biological Chemistry
2010 Courtney Karner, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and in the Charles and Jane Pak Center for Mineral Metabolism and Clinical Research, UTSW Genetics & Development
2009 Heng-Chi Lee, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology University of Chicago Genetics & Development
2008 Rodney Infante, M.D., Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Center for Human Nutrition, UTSW Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP)/Cell Regulation
2007 Ryan Potts, Ph.D. Executive Director and Head, Induced Proximity Platform, Amgen Cell Regulation
2006 Agnel Sfeir, Ph.D. Professor, Memorial Sloan Kettering Integrative Biology
2005 Eileen Foy, M.D., Ph.D. Assistant Clinical Professor, Pediatrics, UCSF MSTP/Molecular Microbiology
2004 Andrew Shulman, M.D., Ph.D. Medical Director, Rheumatology, Children’s Hospital of Orange County MSTP/Cell Regulation
2003 John “Trey” Fondon III, Ph.D. Laboratory Director, Othram Inc. Molecular Biophysics
2002 Jared Rutter, Ph.D.* Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry, University of Utah Molecular Biophysics
2001 Chad Cowan, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Harvard, Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Bio (also scientific founder of CRISPR Therapeutics AG) Cell Regulation
2000 Eva Istvan, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Infectious Diseases, Washington University School of Medicine Molecular Biophysics
1999 Pallavur “P.V.” Sivakumar, Ph.D. VP and Head of Discovery, Immuno-Oncology and Cell Therapy Thematic Research Center, Bristol-Myers Squibb Immunology
1998 Nikolai Grishin, Ph.D. Professor of Biochemistry, UTSW Molecular Biophysics
1997 Ellen Lumpkin, Ph.D. Professor of Cell Biology, Development and Physiology, UC Berkeley Neuroscience
1996 Mircea Podar, Ph.D. Joint Faculty Associate Professor, University of Tennessee Knoxville, and Distinguished Scientist and Group Leader, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Genetics & Development
1995 David Raizen, M.D., Ph.D. Associate Professor of Neurology, University of Pennsylvania MSTP/Neuroscience
1994 Bostjan Kobe, Ph.D. Professor, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, ARC Laureate Fellow, University of Queensland Molecular Biophysics
1993 Kerstin “Kiki” Leuther, Ph.D. Research Scientist, Satellite Healthcare/WellBound Genetics & Development
1992 Michelle Southard-Smith, Ph.D. Professor, Departments of Medicine and Cell & Developmental Biology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center Genetics & Development
1991 Robert Kowal, M.D., Ph.D. VP and General Manager, Cardiac Pacing Therapies, Medtronic MSTP/Cell & Molecular Biology
1990 Charles Sentman, Ph.D. Director, Center for Synthetic Immunity; Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine Immunology
1989 Ellen Pizer, M.D., Ph.D. Pathology Specialist, Seattle MSTP/Microbiology
1988 Andrew Zinn, M.D., Ph.D. Dean, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, UTSW MSTP/Cell & Molecular Biology
1987 John Williams, M.D., Ph.D. Clinical Assistant Professor of Endocrinology, University of Tennessee MSTP/Biochemistry
1986 John Hackett, Ph.D. Divisional VP of Applied Research and Technology and Manager of Global Viral Surveillance Program, Abbott Immunology
1985 Diane Jelinek, Ph.D. Professor of Immunology, Mayo Clinic Immunology
1984 Omid Khorram, M.D., Ph.D. Investigator, The Lundquist Institute, and Professor-In-Residence of Obstetrics and Gynecology, UCLA Physiology
1983 Sheryl Smith, Ph.D. Distinguished Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology, SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University Physiology
1982 James Koenig, Ph.D. Director, Stroke Program, NET Cluster, Division of Neuroscience, NINDS Physiology
1981 Ellen Puré, Ph.D. Professor of Pharmacology, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine Immunology
1980 Mary Elizabeth “Pila” Estess Siegelman, Ph.D. N/A Microbiology

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scientist

Sources: Southwestern Medical Foundation, UT Southwestern, alumni records, and online record searches. The data above is based on the most current information available and cannot be guaranteed as necessarily the most accurate, however, particularly regarding an individual’s last known position and in cases where some records could not be located or verified. All efforts were made to validate and confirm data.

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