June 20, 2023
Five new Blick Scholars reflect how VCU junior faculty are making their mark in medical research
From longevity and neuroscience to asthma and health equity, these assistant professors are rising stars in their fields.
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Five Virginia Commonwealth University junior faculty members were recently selected as Blick Scholars, a prestigious recognition that funds their innovative medical research.
The five new Blick Scholars are:
- Yana Cen, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, School of Pharmacy.
- Peter Hamilton, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, School of Medicine.
- Anika L. Hines, Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor, Department of Health Behavior and Policy, School of Medicine.
- Audrey Lafrenaye, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, School of Medicine.
- Rebecca Martin, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, School of Medicine.
“The Blick Scholar award is a premier recognition for those junior faculty members who have been exceptionally successful in research,” said Marlon Levy, M.D., interim senior vice president for VCU Health Sciences and interim CEO of VCU Health System. “They are an extraordinary group. We are so fortunate to have them here at VCU. Without question, we are extremely grateful for the foresight of George and Lavinia Blick to establish this fund.”
The George and Lavinia Blick Research Fund was established in 2009 through a $2 million gift dedicated to medical research on the MCV Campus. Inspired by the care that her father and other loved ones had received at MCV and, later, VCU Medical Center, Lavinia Blick made the gift specifically to advance research across the academic health system.
Supporting research excellence
Once every four years, Blick Scholars are selected through a competitive process. Criteria include growth toward national or international recognition, a record of external research funding, collaborative scholarship and a primary faculty appointment in one of VCU’s health sciences schools. Each appointment includes an annual award of $25,000 for four years to support their research.
“I am truly honored and humbled by this award,” said Cen, whose research focuses on developing chemical tools and drug candidates targeting a family of longevity proteins, namely the sirtuins. “It is an amazing opportunity to have our team's ‘crazy’ ideas recognized as important for research investment and funded for four years.”
Cen’s team has published significant papers in leading journals, delivered lectures at elite institutions and conferences, and received funding internally and externally. Umesh Desai, Ph.D., chair of the School of Pharmacy's Department of Medicinal Chemistry, considers Cen a rising star at VCU.
“Dr. Cen is a highly energetic young professor in my department with major accolades to her credit, including the NSF CAREER award and an NIH investigator-initiated original award,” Desai said. These honors “have helped her build a national reputation in the area of sirtuin biochemistry and medicinal chemistry.”
Vote of confidence for junior faculty
In the School of Medicine, Hamilton is uncovering and manipulating the brain molecular drivers of drug- and stress-sensitive behaviors. He hopes to deliver novel treatments to people suffering from related syndromes like addiction and depression.
"Being a Blick Scholar is an incredible honor, as it represents a vote of confidence from my colleagues and mentors here at VCU,” Hamilton said. “Also, the longitudinal financial support allows me to accelerate the establishment of my own scientific research niche and provides a foundation for pursuing further independent research funding.”
Fellow neuroscientist Lafrenaye is investigating the progression of diffuse pathologies associated with traumatic brain injury using basic science and translational approaches.
“It is a great honor to be selected as a Blick Scholar, especially this year,” she said. “Having experienced the challenges, uncertainty and isolation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic as junior faculty, this award validates that the research we've been doing is supported by the VCU medical campus community.”
Pamela Knapp, Ph.D., professor and interim chair in the School of Medicine’s Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, works closely with Lafrenaye and Hamilton.
“They are both rising stars in two very different fields of neuroscience,” Knapp said. “Although their scientific interests differ, they share a deep dedication to training younger scientists who bring broader perspectives of experience into the field. The department and the School of Medicine are privileged to have them as colleagues.”
Empowering women researchers
Four of the five Blick Scholars for 2023 are women, and earlier this year, two VCU faculty members were ranked among 2022’s top female scientists in the world. Martin, whose research in the School of Medicine focuses on the role of dendritic cells in the pathogenesis of allergic asthma, said the Blick award carries additional meaning in that context.
“As an early career woman scientist, this recognition and support will not only empower me but will empower other early career women researchers to continue to work to make meaningful contributions to their respective fields,” Martin said.
Hines, the fifth new Blick Scholar, was recognized as a trailblazer in cardiovascular health equity. Her research explores the complex effects of stress in the lived experiences of minorities as it pertains to cardiovascular disease, with an eye toward interventions that address stressors and reduce racial disparities.
“Dr. Hines is the epitome of scholarly excellence,” said Jessica G. LaRose, Ph.D., interim chair and associate professor in the School of Medicine. “Not only has she been incredibly successful in securing extramural funding and publishing her work, but she has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to community engagement and real-world impact. Dr. Hines’ program of research centers the lived experiences of Black women — and in doing so, she designs interventions that have the potential to transform the way we approach cardiovascular health promotion for this population.”
Administered through the MCV Foundation, the George and Lavinia Blick Research Fund and the Blick Scholars Program reflect the enduring impact of philanthropy in the field of medical research. For more, please visit www.mcvfoundation.org.
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