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Centennial Scholars an Investment in Role Models and Diversity

“We should acknowledge differences; we should greet differences, until difference makes no difference anymore.”


This sage advice, spoken by Hispanic educator Adela Allen (1928-2008), rings true for those involved in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) Centennial Scholars Program.


Tracy Downs (from left), Chris Capitini and Heather JohnsonEach scholar exemplifies a group that is under-represented in health care, medical research, population health and related fields.


Related: Meet the Centennial Scholars


Like Allen, they are devoting their lives to teaching and mentoring others - some of whom also come from under-represented groups - to bolster the next generation’s educational, academic and research journeys.


While the highly qualified Centennial Scholars are now able to “pay it forward,” they also reflect on the strong supporters who helped them get where they are today.


“I have had phenomenal mentors at UW since I started my undergraduate education, and they have stayed with me throughout my career. This is the biggest factor in my decision to stay at UW,” explains Centennial Scholar Heather Johnson, MD, a Chicago native. “My early mentors helped me in medical school, and they guided my transition to other mentors as I moved into my internal medicine residency and cardiovascular medicine fellowship here.”


After Johnson received an offer to join the School of Medicine and Public Health faculty, her primary mentors - Maureen Smith, MD, MPH, PhD, director of the Health Innovation Program, and James Stein, MD, professor in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine and director of the UW Hospital and Clinics Preventive Cardiology Program - suggested that she apply to the Centennial Scholars Program due to her strong interest in academic medicine. She was accepted to that program and started her appointment as a tenure-track assistant professor in July 2010.


Johnson has clinical responsibilities in cardiology and preventive cardiology. However, the Centennial Scholars Program provides approximately 50 percent of each scholar’s salary in exchange for a commitment from the scholar’s department to protect one-half of his or her time for scholarly work.


Centennial ScholarsThe funding helps encourage highly qualified individuals, who are committed to academic medicine and who will add to the diversity of the School of Medicine and Public Health faculty.


The program supports advanced leadership and academic training to prepare new faculty for successful careers in research and teaching. It helps fulfill the school’s vision to develop faculty, educators and staff whose diversity enhances the quality of education, patient care and research.


“It’s critical for the SMPH to have diverse role models among its students, faculty and staff so that we can fully prepare trainees to enter the health care workforce,” explains program director Patricia Kokotailo, MD, MPH, associate dean for faculty development and faculty affairs at the school. “Especially in our increasingly global environment, today’s learners will care for patients who come from diverse cultures and have varied viewpoints.”


She adds that diversity means different things to different people; it can be related to factors like culture, race, gender and age, and to groups that are under-represented in the science and technology fields.


Helping Scholars Succeed


Since welcoming its first scholar in October 2009 - Dayle DeLancey, PhD - the program has grown to 11 scholars whose interests span the continuum of basic, clinical, translational and population health sciences and the history of medicine. The scholars’ academic responsibilities also vary. Some teach courses; others oversee the work of undergraduate and graduate students, medical residents, fellows and post-graduate researchers.


Each program applicant must assemble a list of mentors, including the chair of his or her department, who will support the scholar’s research; a proposed timeline for scholarly work; and a vision statement for academic progress. A six-person advisory committee, led by Ricardo Lloyd, MD, PhD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, accepts scholars on a rolling horizon. Those accepted receive funding annually for three years and may reapply for another three-year term.


“We want to start supporting faculty members quickly after they join the SMPH so they can make use of protected time to launch their academic careers,” Kokotailo explains.


The program aims to help each of these individuals succeed as a scholar. As an example, Kokotailo points to Johnson’s path. After joining the Centennial Scholars, Johnson earned a master’s degree in population health at the School of Medicine and Public Health. She used her protected scholarly time to build a preventive cardiology research program related to health outcomes data and qualitative methods aimed at improving hypertension management and preventive cardiovascular care delivery to young adults.


Based on Johnson’s successful research record, she recently received a five-year grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Because she has this grant, her remaining Centennial Scholars funding has shifted from supporting her salary to providing for other research expenses, such as hiring a statistician or other research staff.


Maximizing Opportunities


Another advantage of the program relates to knowledge sharing. The full group of scholars meets every other month - often including guest presenters - and each scholar meets annually with the program’s advisory committee to review his or her progress. These oversight groups are among the most beneficial aspects of the program, says Chris Capitini, MD, who in September 2011 became an assistant professor in the Division of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant, and in January 2012 became a Centennial Scholar.


“When you are hired, it’s very common for your clinical demands to start immediately. Because my department and division heads knew I was interested in basic science research, they encouraged me to apply for the Centennial Scholars Program,” says Capitini, a New Jersey native who earned his medical degree from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York, and completed his pediatric residency at the University of Minnesota and his pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship through a joint program with Johns Hopkins University and the National Cancer Institute.


He elaborates: “Through the Centennial Scholars oversight group, I’ve received many tips about how to successfully navigate the academic system, build effective relationships with colleagues, access internal and external grants, and maximize opportunities that I otherwise would not know about. My mentors provide feedback as I prepare to present my work at professional meetings. I have never heard of any program like this to help under-represented faculty members get established in their laboratory.”


Capitini notes that Paul Sondel, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics and the head of his division, helped him segue into teaching.


“Without my protected time, it also would have been much more difficult for me to find time to teach,” Capitini says, adding that funding agencies value teaching experience as a means of demonstrating expertise.


Capitini’s research focuses on using preclinical models of allogeneic bone marrow transplant to cure pediatric leukemias and solid tumors. His laboratory includes six undergraduate researchers, a full-time technician and a post-doctoral fellow. Capitini aspires to take the steps to add graduate students to his laboratory.


He spends clinical time on the inpatient service and in an outpatient bone marrow transplant clinic. Capitini’s goal is to rapidly translate research findings into clinical immunotherapies. His committee encouraged him to join the UW-Madison Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center’s Molecular and Cellular Hematology Focus Group. This led to Capitini collaborating with Jenny Gumperz, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology.


“We learned that both of our labs are developing models of graft vs. host disease. Her lab uses human hematopoietic stem cells, and mine uses mouse hematopoietic stem cells,” says Capitini. “We now are submitting a research paper together.”


Scholars Become Mentors


Complementing Capitini’s basic science research and Johnson’s population health investigations, Tracy Downs, MD, FACS, is highly engaged in clinical research.


Downs joined the Department of Urology as an associate professor in April 2010 and became a Centennial Scholar in July 2010. His research focuses on bladder cancer, and he directs the school’s Bladder Cancer and Intravesical Therapy Programs.


The San Diego native earned his medical degree at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD). He completed his residency at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and his urologic oncology fellowship at the University of California-San Francisco. In his first tenure-track role at the UCSD, he was one of two African-American faculty members in the Department of Surgery.


“When I interviewed at UW and learned about Dr. Nakada’s strong leadership, I thought, ‘This is a person I need to work with to reach my full academic potential,’” explains Downs, referring to Stephen Nakada, MD, chair, Department of Urology, and David T. Uehling Professor of Urology. “I was incredibly impressed by Madison, the beautiful lakes and the UW - its size reminded me of West Coast schools.”


“Although people may think UCSD is more diverse than the UW, that’s not the case. It is clear to me that the UW School of Medicine and Public Health is investing in diversity through recruitment and retention, with programs like Centennial Scholars. It’s remarkable,” Downs exclaims.


“The school’s commitment to the Centennial Scholars makes a huge difference. I have the sense that people want me to succeed,” he says, noting particularly his interactions with Pat Kokotailo, other committee members and guest speakers. “These things give me the tools and connection points to facilitate success.”


Reflecting on his journey, Downs says, “I remember how I felt when I wanted to get into college, medical school, a residency and a faculty position. Now, I can 'pass it forward' by helping younger people reach their goals, like others helped me.”


To this end, Downs has mentored students each year in the School of Medicine and Public Health's Shapiro Summer Research Program, as well as an undergraduate researcher from Atlanta’s Spelman College, with which UW-Madison arranges research experiences for African-American female students. He is interviewing more students who want to work with him.


“When I work with these stellar students, it’s about more than conducting research. It’s about teaching them how to think like a researcher and a leader, and exposing them to different dynamics,” he says.


While Downs recognizes the importance of state-of-the-art surgical treatments, his strong ambition is to eliminate the need for surgery through prevention, detection and novel therapies. His research focuses on chemopreventive agents that reduce recurrence rates of bladder cancer and even prevent bladder cancer development.


When he was interviewing at the School of Medicine and Public Health, he negotiated for the UW to adopt Cysview technology, which had been available only in Europe for a few years. UW Hospital and Clinics became the first in Wisconsin to use the newly approved optical imaging agent that improves bladder cancer diagnosis.


Downs’ work likely will move into the population health realm, but, he notes, “First I will have to prove results in a small cohort of my patients, then in multicenter studies.”


Kokotailo concludes, “The Centennial Scholars’ many contributions add another dimension to our school. Their clinical, educational and research work bring innovation and scholarship to the SMPH, and their role modeling is invaluable on many levels.”


By Kris Whitman

This article appears in the winter 2013 issue of Quarterly.

Date Published: 03/12/2013

News tag(s):  quarterlyfacultydiversityalumni

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Centennial Scholars an Investment in Role Models and Diversity

Last updated: 03/27/2014
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