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The $5,000 awards, supported by the John William Pope Foundation, are given annually to up to three emerging physician-researchers.

The University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center has named Joseph M. Caster, MD, PhD, Emma Barber, MD, and Nathan Montgomery, MD, PhD, as the recipients of the 2016 Pope Clinical Fellows Awards.

The $5,000 awards, supported by the John William Pope Foundation, are given annually to up to three emerging physician-researchers.

Barber was honored for her dedicated clinical practice and highly productive research activities in gynecologic oncology. She came to UNC with significant research accomplishments, including a highly-cited paper in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology that focused on the subjectivity in decision making surrounding Caesarian sections. She continued her impressive research career at UNC with 14 publications – all completed during her active gynecologic oncology fellowship and while earning a master’s degree in clinical research.

A key project she led at UNC addressed a central question to the treatment of ovarian cancer: Should patients be treated with surgery first, or with neoadjuvant chemotherapy? Building on her findings from that central question, Barber developed a model to predict if a given patient will experience a complication after surgery – a critical question for gynecologic oncologists as they try to balance effective treatment for women with ovarian cancer – to determine if they should be triaged to receive chemotherapy initially, or surgery. The two publications that stemmed from this landed in the top two journals in the fields of obstetrics andgynecology and gynecologic oncology.

“She is an excellent clinician, a gifted surgeon, and an innovative investigator who will move our field forward,” said Paola A. Gehrig, MD, director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology. “Her impressive accomplishments to-date clearly foretell a successful academic trajectory.”

Caster was recognized for his leadership as chief resident in the Department of Radiation Oncology, his outstanding work as a radiation oncology resident, and his highly productive research in the field of nanomedicine.

In addition to demonstrating excellence as a clinical trainee and dedication to his patients, Caster was a highly productive researcher in the lab of Andrew Z. Wang, MD, director of Clinical and Translational Research in the Department of Radiation Oncology.

Caster was remarkably prolific, publishing an impressive level of scientific findings on new nanomedicine strategies. His research included the investigation of the selective activation of a new formulation of an experimental drug to improve its potency and reduce its toxicity. In this study, which was published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology Biology Physics, Caster and Wang showed they could selectively activate the experimental drug using radiation treatment to spare normal cells form the drug’s side effects. In another study, Caster and his colleagues reported on a new nanotechnology-based system for capturing tumor cells circulating in the blood as a new “liquid biopsy,” or simple blood test, to detect cancer.

“Joe has been an outstanding clinical trainee,” Wang said. “Clinically, he is one of the most hardworking and capable residents we have ever trained. In fact, his clinical aptitude was so recognized within the department that he received unanimous faculty support for nomination into the B. Leonard Holman Research Pathway, which he ultimately received.”

Montgomery was honored for his role as a fellow in pathology and hematopathology and his impressive body of research that aimed to improve our understanding and diagnosis of lymoproliferative disorders, which are characterized by abnormal growth of lymphatic system cells.

He joined the research team working on lymphoma research and diagnosis with UNC-Project Malawi, the clinical care and research collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill and the Malawi Ministry of Health in the country in sub-Saharan Africa. Montgomery was one of two pathologists helping to diagnose Malawian cases during weekly telepathology conferences, and he helped catalogue and analyze tumor and other samples delivered to UNC – work that is key to identifying prognostic and predictive biomarkers of this disease that can benefit patients in North Carolina, and around the globe, and particularly in resource-limited settings. He also traveled to Malawi to work alongside pathologists and other staff, to develop new diagnostic tools, to participate in process improvement efforts, and to launch innovate work in genomic analysis.

“Although we have been fortunate to have a number of truly outstanding trainees, Nate is, without question, the best hematopathology fellow that I have ever had the privilege of working with,” said Stephanie P. Matthews, MD, assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, and the director of the hematopathology fellowship at UNC. “Nate approaches his clinical work with an unparalleled level of care and dedication, and has a confident and persistent approach to his cases,” she added.