The UNC School of Medicine selected professors from the departments of surgery, and biochemistry and biophysics for the annual award in honor of Oliver Smithies, UNC’s first Nobel Prize winner.
The UNC School of Medicine selected Jen Jen Yeh, MD, associate professor and vice chair of research for the Department of Surgery, and Brian Strahl, PhD, professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, as Smithies Investigators. The annual award is given to honor senior faculty members who have made significant research contributions and achieved international recognition for their work. Both Yeh and Strahl are members of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Yeh has a joint appointment in the Department of Pharmacology.
The award was established in honor of the research achievements of UNC Nobel Prize Winner Oliver Smithies, DPhil, the Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. The Smithies Investigators receive $75,000 for research over a five-year term, become members of the Oliver Smithies Society, and will present highlights of their research accomplishments at a special seminar in the fall.
Yeh was recruited to the UNC School of Medicine in 2005, and has been one of the most successful surgeon-scientists at UNC. She has an active surgical oncology practice focused on endocrine and pancreatic cancers. Her research lab focuses on identifying and studying novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of colorectal and pancreatic cancer. Recently, her group identified new subtypes for pancreatic cancer, research that was published in Nature Genetics. Using her surgical expertise, she also initiated a large Patient-Derived Xenograft Program with a major emphasis on the establishment of both primary and metastatic pancreatic tumors in order to use this platform for therapeutic and biomarker evaluation.
Yeh recently led the UNC Pancreas Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) submission and is a co-investigator on many NIH grants focused on topics as diverse as biostatistics and microfluidics. Her work has resulted in three patents, and she is well-recognized in her field of surgical oncology. Yeh has received multiple prestigious awards, including an American Surgical Foundation Research Fellowship, the Clinical Investigator Award from the Society of Surgical Oncology, and she was inducted into the American Society for Clinical Investigation, an honor society for physician-researchers.
Strahl is a leading researcher in his field and the faculty director of the UNC High-Throughput Peptide Synthesis and Array Facility. He started his lab at UNC in 2001, and it has been at the forefront of understanding how histones and their covalent modifications regulate chromatin structure and function, with a particular focus on how chromatin impacts gene regulation. His lab is also engaged in a high-throughput proteomics project involving histone peptide arrays to decipher how histone modifications – and the histone codes they generate – regulate the recruitment of chromatin-associated proteins that govern the diverse functions associated with DNA.
In addition to mentoring a large group of students, postdocs, and research staff, Strahl also co-founded a UNC start-up company called EpiCypher, which was selected as one of the two best start-ups by the US Congress in 2016. He is routinely invited to speak at universities for seminars, to attend major meetings and is a standing member on an NIH study section. He has received numerous awards and honors, including the Philip & Ruth Hettleman Prize, an NIH Eureka Award, and selection as a PEW Scholar.
Oliver Smithies, a faculty member at UNC for more than 25 years, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007. He co-discovered a technique he called “gene-targeting,” which allows scientists to study genetic mutations by knocking out specific genes in mice. The method became ubiquitous in basic research labs and opened up a new kind of scientific inquiry into many different diseases.
Each year, Smithies hosts the annual Oliver Smithies Nobel Symposium at the UNC School of Medicine.
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