Perelman School of Medicine Students Take Their First Steps Towards Becoming Doctors
The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania welcomed 150 new medical students from 28 states this summer during the 26th Annual White Coat Ceremony. This event served as a significant rite of passage for the entering class, marking the official beginning of their medical careers.
“This is an amazing time in your lives,” said Suzanne Rose, MD, MSEd, senior vice dean for Medical Education. “Many of you have dreamed of this goal from your days over 20 years ago in toddler scrubs pajamas. Some of you took a more circuitous path to reach this milestone. Many had to overcome hurdles—but you all achieved monumental success.”
One by one, the students took to the stage and shared fun facts about themselves—memories from high school and college, travel tales, secret hobbies and talents—before receiving their white coats and stethoscopes in the presence of their supportive family members, friends, and faculty. At the ceremony’s conclusion, the entire class and physicians in attendance recited the Declaration of Geneva, pledging their lives to the service of humanity and promising to treat every patient to the best of their ability, preserve patient privacy, and to share their medical knowledge in order to advance the health care profession.
Fun Facts About the 2019 PSOM Incoming Class
Never Have I Ever
- Maryam Alausa: I’ve never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
- Alfredo Lucas: I was born in Venezuela and grew up in San Diego, so I have no concept of snow or winter.
- Angela Chen: Three years ago, I ran a marathon on the Great Wall of China.
- Hanna Jia: I once threw up over the Great Wall of China.
I Heart Science
- Rohan Palanki: I didn’t go to my senior prom—I went to the science fair.
- Kevin Sun: In high school, I gave a poster presentation to Bill Nye.
Getting Those ZZZs No Matter What
- Sai Chaluvadi: There’s a Facebook group dedicated to pictures of me falling asleep in random places.
- Max Shin: While in Peru, my friend found me sleepwalking in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.
It’s the Journey That Counts
- Sabrina Bulas: I once rode camel named Michael Jackson around the Pyramids of Giza.
- Andrea Jin: I biked across the country and was chased by a Chihuahua through the streets of Idaho.
Close Encounters of the Terrifying Kind
- Lillian Chien: The very first time I went scuba diving, I swam headfirst into a manta ray.
- Thilan Tudor: I bumped noses with a shark while snorkeling in Great Barrier Reef.
Not-so-casual Meet and Greets
- Rishi Goel: I had dinner with Queen Elizabeth II.
- Victoria Lord: I shook hands with the Dalai Lama.
The Pavilion’s Topping Out Ceremony Marks a New Construction Milestone
The Pavilion—Penn Medicine’s new, $1.5 billion hospital and the largest capital building project in Penn’s history—is only about two years away from providing patients with exceptional, comprehensive care in a state-of-the-art, “future-proof” environment. In May, an official topping out ceremony was held to celebrate a momentous milestone in the facility’s development.
“Topping out” refers to placing the last beam atop a structure during its construction. In advance of the big day, hundreds of Penn Medicine employees and students were invited to join the construction crew in signing the final steel beam. In addition to being covered with hundreds of signatures, union numbers, and messages, the beam was fittingly topped with a small sculpture of Benjamin Franklin, allowing the innovative polymath who started it all to look down on the continued growth and future expansion of the health system he inspired.
“You’re not building a hospital,” Kevin Mahoney, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, told the construction crew gathered for the event. “You’re curing cancer. You’re curing heart disease. [These advances are] going to happen in Philadelphia, and you guys have been a big part of making it happen. Fifteen years from now, you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren, ‘I put that building up that allowed the doctors to do their magic.’ I’m so grateful for everything you’re doing.”
Read more about the philanthropic donors powering the Pavilion in Development Matters.
In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new gene therapy that halts the progression of spinal muscle atrophy (SMA)—a fatal genetic disorder that causes children to lose the ability to walk, eat, and breathe. The onetime therapy, Zolgensma, is designed for children under two years old and produces the critical survival motor neuron (SMN) protein needed to preserve a patient’s muscular function. For children with the rare disease and their families, the approval offers hope for a future that once seemed impossible.
Zolgensma is based on an adeno-associated virus (AAV) that serves as a vehicle to deliver a healthy replacement gene to take over for the missing or malfunctioning SMN1 gene. This fundamental platform was pioneered by James Wilson, MD, PhD, director of Penn’s Gene Therapy Program and Orphan Disease Center, and a professor of Medicine and Pediatrics. Following treatment, patients who participated in the Zolgensma clinical trial did not require permanent ventilation and most could successfully sit unassisted for more than five seconds—tremendous progress for a disease that typically takes the lives of all afflicted children before the second birthday.
“Of the more than 100 new AAVs that we discovered, it was AAV9 that stood out,” Wilson said. “This is a huge milestone for the rare disease community because the approach can be leveraged across many different diseases.”
Wilson and his ambitious team of researchers continue to look ahead and work towards a future of transformative breakthroughs. An expanded partnership between Amicus Therapeutics and the Perelman School of Medicine, for instance, aims to foster collaborative research and advance the development of novel gene therapies for lysosomal disorders and other rare diseases, making it clear that SMA is just the beginning.
Chronic lung diseases are becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States, and respiratory deficiencies and diseases continue to be a leading cause of death in pediatric patients. The newly established Penn-CHOP Lung Biology Institute (LBI), led by Edward E. Morrisey, PhD, scientific director of the Penn Institute of Regenerative Medicine, creates an innovative partnership that positions Penn Medicine and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia at the forefront of pulmonary biology research.
Together, Penn and CHOP researchers will build on the work being done by the Penn Center for Pulmonary Biology (also led by Morrisey), collaborate with the Schools of Engineering and Veterinary Medicine, and foster a multidisciplinary, integrative research approach. The unique patient populations at Penn and CHOP with rare and complex diseases will mean LBI’s use of innovative cellular, genetic, and genomic technologies can identify the underlying causes of both chronic and rare respiratory diseases.
New Tara Miller Melanoma Center Advances Research and Honors a Passionate Patient Advocate
In July 2013, 28-year old Tara Miller received news that turned the promising law clerk’s world upside down: she had stage IV melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer. Though Miller’s burgeoning law career was suddenly halted by biopsies, brain surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, her endless positivity, incomparable strength, and commitment to finding a silver lining in the direst moments were undeterred. She recognized that while she could not control the spread of the cancer through her body or the odds that were stacked against her, she could control her response. She could fight—not just for herself, but for every melanoma patient.
With the support of her family, friends, community, and doctors, she established the Tara Miller Melanoma Foundation and organized the inaugural “Make the Best of It Bash,” named for her optimistic catchphrase. The annual event has raised more than $3 million over the past five years to support research led by the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC)’s Melanoma Program—research Miller knew would not save her, but could prevent future patients from ever having the same experience. Miller passed away in 2014 just weeks before her 30th birthday, but her extraordinary, selfless legacy lives on in the foundation she created and community she inspired to research, fundraise, and celebrate in her honor.
This May, the ACC announced the creation of the Tara Miller Melanoma Center, which will accelerate melanoma research and improve clinical outcomes for patients. The center was made possible by a gift from Miller’s parents, George and Debbie, and will build on her dream of finding a cure by supporting critical melanoma translational research, developing novel therapies, and providing patient education and supportive resources. ACC Director Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, notes that the newly established Tara Miller Professorship in Melanoma Research and Patient Care will also ensure that Miller forever remains “a reminder to us to work as hard as we can every day to make a difference for our patients.”
The Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI) has a new executive director: Rachel Werner, MD’98, PhD’04, GME’04, a professor of Medicine and Health Care Management and a practicing physician at the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Lauded by her colleagues as a visionary scholar, an enthusiastic mentor, and the perfect fit for this role, Werner has been a dedicated health services researcher for nearly two decades. She joined LDI in 2005 as a Senior Fellow and was integral in expanding its digital infrastructure, while also consistently publishing award-winning research that seamlessly combines the realms of health equity and quality measurement. As Werner—whose work focuses on the effects of health care policies on health care delivery —settles into this leadership role, she says her aim is to help take the institution to new heights, making “Penn the national leader in the field of health economics [and] LDI an even more vibrant, collaborative, and collegial place” for collaborative, high-quality research.
Werner is the first woman to hold the position in the health services research organization’s 51-year history. In an interview with LDI’s Health Economist, she notes that she prefers to be thought of as an executive director first—and one who brings a physician-economist perspective to the table for the first time—she understands the impact of women seeing proof that barriers can be broken and the proverbial glass ceiling can be shattered. “I think it’s always a challenge to be the first woman to do anything. But it’s really important to have visible female role models for women who are aspiring to other leadership positions or aspiring to careers in this field,” she said.
New PSOM Arrivals Named Presidential Assistant Professors
This spring, the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) recently welcomed two new faculty members who were chosen as Presidential Assistant Professors. Presidential Professorships are five-year-term chairs, awarded to outstanding scholars by University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann.
César de la Fuente, PhD: Presidential Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering
De la Fuente joined PSOM from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he served as a postdoctoral associate. His current research aims to fight infectious disease and mental illness by combining techniques from protein design, engineering, computational biology, and microbiology. In addition to earning Presidential Professorships across three fields and leading the Machine Biology Group, he was also recently recognized on MIT Technology Review’s list of 35 Innovators Under 35 and GEN’s Top 10 Under 40.
Kellie Ann Jurado, PhD: Presidential Assistant Professor of Microbiology
Jurado comes to Penn from Yale University, where she was a postdoctoral fellow and received several major grants and fellowships, including the L’Oréal Women in Science Fellowship, the Charles H. Revson Senior Fellowship in Biomedical Science, and a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Fellowship. She was also named a STAT Wunderkind by STAT News. Jurado’s work examines how the immune system interacts with viral infections, such as Zika and enterovirus D68—an emerging viral infection that causes a polio-like disease in children.
How Do You Spell Research?
Penn Medicine studies published in recent months show the way.
Interferons (IFN) are proteins that inhibit cancer cells’ ability to spread by activating the immune system. However, the IFN signaling pathway can be intercepted and manipulated by the invaders, prompting immune cells to hit the brakes. A study published in Cell suggests that understanding this stop and go pathway—and learning to boost the “go” signal and block the “stop” signal—can provide a biomarker for the efficacy of immunotherapy.
Nudging providers can help reduce unnecessary treatment. Introducing an adjusted default physician order into electronic medical records (EMRs) reduced the use of unnecessary imaging for patients with advanced cancer during palliative radiation therapy, according to a study published in JAMA. This nudge, which has been implemented throughout Penn Medicine, was one of the first of its kind designed to decrease a lower value, needless behavior—daily imaging—and has successfully saved time and improved the patient experience.
Neurons were long believed to come in a finite supply, but neuroscientists have since found that mammals’ brains can develop new neurons over time. A study in mice has shown that neurons in the hippocampus’s dentate gyrus replenish from a single type of stem cells. Harnessing these specific stem cells may someday aid brain regeneration because these new neurons are more flexible, allowing the brain to more effectively learn, store memories, adjust moods, and compensate after injury or aging. These findings were published in Cell.
Opioid addictions and overdoses have been shown to disproportionately affect cancer patients. To address this public health issue, researchers developed a pain management program for urologic cancer patients undergoing robotic surgery that provided them with non-narcotic pain relievers pre- and post-surgery, escalating to opioids only as needed. Pain scores after discharge indicated no difference among patients who received no prescription opioids vs. those who received ten pills of oxycodone or tramadol, indicating that controlling pain is possible while also reducing the number of opioid pills moving through the community.
Viable alternatives to sedative medications, such as listening to relaxing music, can potentially reduce anxiety in patients before they undergo regional anesthesia procedures, without the same risk of side effects. Researchers have found that patients who received disposable, noise-canceling headphones that played Marconi Union’s “Weightless” (designed by sound therapists) showed similar changes in their anxiety levels when compared with patients who received an injection of midazolam. These findings were published in Regional Anesthesia & Pain Medicine.
An app that predicts the likelihood of a patient developing an incisional hernia following abdominal surgery has been developed. Using EMR data from nearly 30,000 patients, the team determined which procedures most often require a second surgery to repair hernias, as well as a list of risk factors. The app calculates a real-time risk score so surgeons and patients can incorporate the data into their decision-making process.
Twitter users’ photos may provide a glimpse into their mental health. Researchers used computer vision algorithms and AI to determine that images tweeted by depressed and anxious individuals are marked by less vivid colors (often grayscale), lower aesthetic cohesion, suppressed expressions, and fewer depictions of family, friends, or recreational activities. With further development, this tool offers expanded screening and monitoring possibilities beyond Twitter and beyond anxiety and depression.
EMR-linked dashboards that alerted physicians were more effective in prompting medication orders than just educating doctors, according to a study published in the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety. The tech-assisted nudge contributed to an 18 percent increase in needed prescriptions for cardiac patients who would benefit from acid suppression therapy to prevent gastrointestinal bleeding. Looking ahead, the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation aims to work on similar dashboards to prompt providers to adopt other evidence-based practices.
Honors & Awards
The honors and awards listed on this page are just a few of the highlights among Penn Medicine’s highly lauded leaders, faculty, staff, and trainees. For more honors, click here.
Six Penn physician-scientists were elected to the Association of American Physicians, making up an impressive ten percent of the 2019 class. This prestigious medical organization recognizes individuals who have contributed to basic and clinical science and applied their findings to advance clinical medicine. The new members from Penn are Zoltan Arany, MD, PhD, a professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and director of the Cardiovascular Metabolism Program; Susan Domchek, MD, the Basser Professor in Oncology, executive director of the Basser Center for BRCA, and director of the MacDonald Women’s Cancer Risk Evaluation Center; Scott Halpern, MD’03, MSCE’01, PhD’02, MBe’02, MSCE’01, a professor of Medicine, Medical Ethics & Health Policy, and Epidemiology, and founding director of the Palliative and Advanced Illness Research Center; David Margolis, MD, MSCE’98, PhD’00, a professor of Dermatology and Biostatistics and Epidemiology, and director of the Cutaneous Ulcer Program; Maria Oquendo, MD, PhD, the Ruth Meltzer Professor of Psychiatry and chair of Psychiatry; and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases.
Three faculty members in the department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Informatics have been named fellows of the American Statistical Association, the field’s largest and most prestigious professional organization in the United States. ASA selects fellows based on their contributions to the advancement of statistical science.
Jinbo Chen, PhD
Professor of Biostatistics
Chen was honored for developing innovative statistical methods for biomedical studies with cutting-edge public health applications, exceptional research and mentoring, and generous service to the community.
Rebecca Hubbard, PhD
Associate Professor of Biostatistics
Hubbard was recognized for her contributions to the analysis of electronic health records and study of cancer epidemiology, as well as her ASA service as a leader of the Biometrics section.
Nandita Mitra, PhD
Co-Director of the Center for Causal Inference, Vice Chair of Faculty Professional Development, Chair of the Graduate Group in Biostatistics and Epidemiology, Professor of Biostatistics
Mitra was celebrated for her work developing statistical methods for cost/cost-effectiveness estimation and for developing innovative causal methods for cancer comparative effectiveness studies.
Jill M. Baren, MD, MS’06, MBA
Professor of Emergency Medicine, Pediatrics, and Medical Ethics
The AEBM seeks to ensure excellent emergency medical care, certify physicians, and provide professional development and education. A member of the Board of Directors since 2012, Baren is now serving a five-year term on the Executive Committee.
Regina Cunningham, PhD, RN
Chief Executive Officer of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
Cunningham was cited for her dedicated focus on maintaining efficiency—addressing overcrowding in the emergency room, for example—and for undertaking grant research into how to improve clinical trials.
William D. James, MD
Paul R. Gross Professor of Dermatology, Director of Education for Dermatology
James received the American Academy of Dermatology award in recognition of his significant contributions to the field. He was also the first recipient of the academy’s William D. James, MD, Mentor of the Year Award—established in his honor—which celebrates excellence in mentoring students, residents, and junior faculty.
Raina Merchant, MD, MSHP’09, GME’10
Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Director of the Penn Center for Digital Health
Merchant was one of ten mid-career health care and health policy professionals chosen by the National Academy of Medicine to join the 2019 class of Emerging Leaders of Health and Medicine Scholars. Merchant, who will serve through June 2022, is grateful for this “incredible opportunity for mentorship and collaboration.”
Nancy Speck, PhD
Chair of Cell and Developmental Biology, Co-Director of the Hematopoietic Stem Cell Program at the Institute of Regenerative Medicine, Co-Leader of the Hematologic Malignancies Program at the Abramson Cancer Center, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology
Speck has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, considered one of the highest honors a scientist can receive, in recognition of her distinguished original research. One of 100 new members, Speck has cloned and characterized protein mutations found in leukemia in order to understand their role in normal red blood cells.
Penn Medicine has earned recognition as a LGBTQ health care leader from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Each of Penn’s six hospital entities received top marks for providing an inclusive, welcoming, and compassionate environment for LGBTQ staff, faculty, and patients. Lancaster General Health and Princeton Health were named LGBTQ Healthcare Equality Leaders, and Chester County Hospital, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, and Pennsylvania Hospital were named Top Performers. These achievements were highlighted in the foundation’s 2019 Healthcare Equality Index, which scores institutions based on their equitable care policies.