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VCU researchers named Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018

M. Samy El-Shall, Ph.D.; and Arun Sanyal, M.D., at the 2018 Outstanding STEM Awards held at the S...
M. Samy El-Shall, Ph.D.; and Arun Sanyal, M.D., at the 2018 Outstanding STEM Awards held at the Science Museum of Virginia.
Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing

Two Virginia Commonwealth University researchers were recognized Thursday as Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018 by Gov. Ralph Northam at the annual Outstanding STEM Awards held at the Science Museum of Virginia.

The awards, which have been presented by Virginia governors for more than 30 years, recognize individuals for their contributions in science, technology, engineering and math. Six were honored at Thursday’s event: three researchers for longtime contributions to their fields and three budding scientists.

“Celebrating the academic excellence and entrepreneurial spirit of these Virginians helps showcase how STEM innovations tie into our everyday lives,” Northam said. “It also highlights the profound contribution that STEM makes to Virginia families and our economy. I thank these extraordinary awardees and everyone who works hard to make Virginia a leader in these important fields.”

Arun Sanyal, M.D., a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine in the VCU School of Medicine; and M. Samy El-Shall, Ph.D., commonwealth professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, were two of three researchers named Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018.

Sanyal, the education core director at VCU’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research, is a pioneer in training future medical researchers and in identifying the mechanisms and clinical outcomes and developing effective management for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NASH) and metabolic syndrome. Incidences of the life-threatening disease are increasing in the U.S. and worldwide. One out of three Americans have excess fat on their livers and of that number, one out of five will eventually develop cirrhosis, Sanyal said.

To address this issue Sanyal has developed training programs in liver disease diagnosis and treatment, and works to incorporate them in primary care settings. He also developed a proprietary mouse strain to test potential therapeutics for the condition. Sanyal is the president, chair and chief medical officer of Sanyal Biotechnology, which was established to commercialize the mouse strain and was nationally recognized as one of the “Best University Startups” of 2016.

Sanyal said he will continue his work on NASH and hopes awareness of obesity-related diseases grows.

“We can’t rest now. We have major public health challenges globally and right here in Virginia. Incidences of pediatric obesity, diabetes and fatty liver disease are increasing and are really interconnected,” he said. “But these challenges shouldn’t be viewed as challenges. They are all opportunities for us to knock it out of the ballpark and we are on the cusp of doing that.”

I love being a detective; you are figuring out nature’s mysteries.

Sanyal added that it was a great honor to be recognized and that he “couldn’t imagine” not being a scientist.

“I love the discovery. I love being a detective; you are figuring out nature’s mysteries,” he said. “This award is very special because it is in Virginia. This is home. We hope we can use this as a platform to increase awareness about obesity-related complications.”

El-Shall, the Mary Eugenia Kapp chair in chemistry, is internationally known for his work in the fields of clusters and nanoscience, which is key in the area of catalysis for the development of clean transportation fuels and the production of new chemicals for pharmaceutical drugs.

El-Shall was selected for the Virginia Outstanding Scientist award because of his work in the area of nanocatalysis, or the use of nanoparticles to enhance reactions in energy and environmental applications. El-Shall is also known for work that helped shape techniques for efficient solar water desalination and removing heavy metals from polluted water. El-Shall said his entire research group deserved to be recognized.

“I am really honored that I was chosen as a Virginia Outstanding Scientist for 2018. I feel that the members of my research group are being honored and recognized for their talent and dedication to understanding research,” he said. “I have had the privilege to work with more than 35 graduate students, 75 undergraduates and 25 postdoctoral fellows and visiting researchers in my lab over the past 29 years at VCU. I am grateful to them as well as to my colleagues at VCU for providing many opportunities for excellent research.”

Puru Jena, Ph.D., distinguished professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said El-Shall excels at inspiring his students.

“The first thing you teach the students is excitement about research and the joy that you get out of something that nobody has ever done, and to be able to tell the students how to be innovative [and] to chart your own course,” he said.

Another VCU researcher was recognized by Northam earlier on Thursday at the Outstanding Faculty Awards, which honor faculty at Virginia's public and private colleges and universities for contributions to teaching, research and public service.

Supriyo Bandyopadhyay, Ph.D., a commonwealth professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the School of Engineering, was one of 12 instructors recognized from across Virginia.

Bandyopadhyay has authored and co-authored nearly 400 research publications and received the University Award of Excellence in 2017.