Sunil K. Ahuja, M.D., M.Sc., who last January electrified the world of HIV-AIDS research with a genetics finding that explains why some people are more susceptible to HIV infection than others in their own ethnic group, was recognized Jan. 19 as the 2006 Presidential Distinguished Scholar at the Health Science Center.
Dr. Ahuja joins an elite group of past Distinguished Scholars, including Julio C. Palmaz, M.D., Health Science Center radiology professor whose Palmaz Stent is a household word among physicians and who made placing the tiny wire-mesh tubes into diseased blood vessels a standard of care in medicine.
“Dr. Ahuja’s amazing creativity and research productivity, which has brought $18 million in grants to the Health Science Center since 1996, is recognized at the highest levels of his profession,” said Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., president of the Health Science Center. “It is a pleasure to honor him as this year’s Presidential Distinguished Scholar.”
Dr. Ahuja collaborated with researchers at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio and other institutions. The team’s work, reported in the prestigious journal Science, found that individuals with a below-average number of copies of a particular immune-response gene, CCL3L1, are much more likely to acquire HIV and later to progress to full-blown AIDS.
Dr. Ahuja has been called one of the brightest scientific minds in the country by Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Dr. Cigarroa presented more than a dozen awards to Health Science Center faculty and staff during the annual Presidential Awards Ceremony. Dr. Palmaz was recognized with a prestigious Ashbel Smith Professorship, named for the Texas physician who was the first chairman of The University of Texas Board of Regents from 1881 to 1886.
The inspirational program included many high points, but perhaps the most memorable occurred after Dr. Cigarroa presented Dr. Ahuja the Distinguished Scholar Award. Dr. Ahuja, recalling a motivational moment provided by his own seventh-grade teacher, said he enjoys seeing young scientists grow. He asked his laboratory team to stand, and a row nearly the span of the auditorium arose – about 20 scientists in all. “You are all gifts to me, and you are all giants,” he said to them.
When he finished his acceptance, the audience members rose to their feet. “Sunil, the standing ovation says it all,” Dr. Cigarroa said. “Very early in my tenure as president, I toured your lab. You could feel a sense of excellence and empowerment. There was a sense of being on a very important mission and of making a difference. Many of the faces in the lab were those of young college and high school students. Sunil, you are the greatest mentor I have seen across this Health Science Center. It is a privilege to present the highest award that an institution can give to any faculty member.”
The other Presidential Excellence Awards include:
Presidential Teaching Excellence Award
• Margaret Bell, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.N., assistant professor of acute nursing care
• Cheryl Burns, M.S., associate professor and undergraduate program director of clinical laboratory sciences
• Sara L. Gill, Ph.D., M.S.N., R.N., associate professor of family nursing care
• W. Ross Lawler, M.D., professor of family and community medicine
• John C. Lee, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry
• William F. Rose Jr., D.D.S., assistant professor of general dentistry
Presidential Clinical Excellence Award
• Javier Kane, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics
• Michael Lichtenstein, M.D., M.Sc, professor of medicine
• Robert W. Parker, M.D., associate professor of family and community medicine
Presidential Junior Research Scholar Award
• Sang Eun Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular medicine, Institute of Biotechnology
Presidential Employee Excellence in Service Award
• Robert P. Edwards, R.N., clinical nursing supervisor in surgery
• Alida Gage, network analyst enterprise desktop manager in computing resources
• Sharon Guevara, director of the Allied Health Welcome Center
• Nelda Potter, administrator in dental diagnostic science
• Sam Reyes, building attendant in facilities management
Presidential Ambassador Scholar Award
• Donna Garcia, School of Nursing
• Lauren Kay Smith, Medical School
• Earlanda Williams, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
• Melissa Bachman, School of Allied Health Sciences
• Ernesto Treviño, Dental School
Other high points of the program included:
• Sam Reyes, facilities management, a winner of the Presidential Employee Excellence in Service Award, saying in his video profile that when he sees a Health Science Center press conference on TV, “I tell my kids, look, I set all that up.” Reyes and his team move the chairs and tables for untold campus events year-round;
• Javier Kane, M.D., pediatrics, a winner of the Presidential Clinical Excellence Award, saying in his video that in caring for terminally ill patients, he has come to understand his own inner strength;
• Michael Lichtenstein, M.D., M.Sc., medicine, Presidential Clinical Excellence Award winner, receiving praise from community leaders Mike and Louise Beldon, whose parents were cared for by Dr. Lichtenstein;
• Margaret Bell, Ph.D., M.S.N., R.N., acute nursing care, one of the original faculty members of the School of Nursing, being honored with the Presidential Teaching Excellence Award;
• John Lee, Ph.D., biochemistry, Teaching Excellence Award winner, being honored in his video with a description of how he teaches protein synthesis – by having students do a “sophisticated” demonstration utilizing folding chairs at the front of the class.