VP&S Names 2021 Gerstner Scholars

Four physician-scientists at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons—Jennifer Gelinas, Catherine Spina, Aaron Viny, and Xiao Zhao—have been named 2021 Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Scholars. Eliza C. Miller, a 2018 Gerstner Scholar, has been named a 2021 Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Merit Awardee.

The Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Scholars Program supports tenure-track physicians who conduct research that has the promise to bring new treatments to patients. The fund provides a stipend of $75,000 per year, for up to three years, to support the awardees’ research projects. Scholars are nominated by a committee of distinguished research faculty and selected by the VP&S dean. The program has named scholars every year since 2008.

The program also presents the Gerstner Merit Award to an outstanding third-year Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Scholar who has made great strides in research. Created in 2014, the award provides an additional year of support to help the scholar secure a significant principal investigator award and become an independent investigator.

Jennifer Gelinas, MD, PhD

Jennifer Gelinas, MD, PhD

Jennifer Gelinas

Project: Closed Loop Electrical Stimulation to Improve Cognition in Epilepsy


Before joining VP&S in 2017, Jennifer Gelinas, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology (in the Sergievsky Center and in the Institute for Genomic Medicine), completed her pediatric neurology residency at the University of British Columbia, an epilepsy fellowship at New York University Langone Medical Center, and a postdoctoral fellowship with Gyorgy Buzsaki, MD, PhD, at New York University Langone Medical Center. She earned her MD and PhD at the University of Alberta, Canada.

Gelinas will pursue an innovative research program that leverages advanced technology and her unique training to tackle an important and challenging topic: treatment of cognitive dysfunction in epilepsy. 

Her work brings together techniques and concepts from neurophysiology and biomedical engineering to understand how brain regions communicate to mediate memory consolidation. Gelinas plans to use this knowledge to investigate how responsive electrical stimulation could be used to enhance this communication and treat cognitive symptoms in epilepsy. 

As a physician-scientist with experience in pediatric neurology and the neural mechanisms of higher cognitive function, Gelinas has a clear understanding of how her research can potentially be applied to improved diagnosis and therapeutics for patients with epilepsy. 

She has already made significant progress. A recent study, published in Brain, revealed interictal epileptiform discharges in patients with medically refractory epilepsy interact with diverse and remote cortical regions in the human brain via induction of coupled spindles.

These interactions may contribute to impairment of processes that heavily rely upon intercortical communication, such as cognition and memory, and manipulation of these interactions may present opportunities for diagnosis and therapies. The work was funded by a Taking Flight Award from the Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) Foundation. 

Gelinas has proven to be a vital member of the Institute for Genomic Medicine, bringing a unique and invaluable perspective to research that is grounded in direct experience with patients with epilepsy.

Gelinas' clinical practice focuses on infantile and childhood epilepsy, with a special interest in computational analysis of intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG).

Mentor: David Goldstein, PhD, the John E. Borne Professor of Medical and Surgical Research (in Genetics and Development) and director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine

Catherine Spina

Catherine Spina

Catherine Spina, MD, PhD

Project: Defining and Leveraging Targetable Pathways to Mitigate Radiation-Induced Increase in Immunosuppressive Myeloid Cells


Catherine Spina, MD, PhD, assistant professor of radiation oncology, completed her MD/PhD training at Boston University School of Medicine and also trained with Jim Collins, PhD, and Donald Ingber, MD, PhD, at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. During her doctoral studies, she engaged in a variety of projects gaining extensive experience with mouse models, including a technically challenging orthotopic Wilm’s tumor model. As a graduate student, she published two first-author manuscripts and contributed to eight peer-reviewed publications in high impact journals, including Nature, Nature Methods, Nature Biotechnology and Science Translational Medicine, and was awarded three U.S. patents. Before joining VP&S as a resident in radiation oncology, Spina completed her internal medicine internship at Mount Auburn Hospital/Harvard Medical School, where she was awarded the Christos E. Carvounis Memorial ‘Excellence with Compassion Award.'

Spina’s Gerstner project will build from studies she started as a resident in the laboratory of Charles Drake, MD, PhD, to characterize and target the mechanisms driving a radiation-induced increase in immunosuppressive myeloid cells. Her work offers tremendous collaborative and translational potential for the near-term development of systemic therapies to combine with radiation therapy and other immunotherapies. She aims to launch early phase clinical trials in collaboration with the genitourinary oncology team in the next one to two years with the overarching goal of improving treatment responses and mitigating immunologically acquired resistance to radiation.

Spina also has an interest in heavy ion particle therapy and in understanding the differential immunologic effects of carbon-ion radiation compared to conventional x-ray radiation. For this work she traveled to Chiba, Japan where she conducted pre-clinical experiments at the Heavy Ion Medical Accelerator. These studies generated interesting results suggesting that carbon-ion therapy may be a more potent immunostimulator compared to conventional radiation and thus preferred for combination with immunotherapy.

Mentors: Muredach Reilly, MBBCh, MSCE, director of the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research and professor of medicine, and Lisa Kachnic, MD, the Chu H. Chang Professor of Radiation Oncology and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology

Aaron Viny, MD, MS

Aaron Viny, MD, MS

Aaron Viny

Project: Alterations in DNA methylation and chromatin structure as convergent pathogenic drivers in myelodysplastic syndrome


Aaron Viny, MD, assistant professor of medicine, was recruited to VP&S in September 2020 from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where he studied the connections between cohesin mutations and cancer in the laboratory of Ross Levine, MD. Viny received his MD from the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine where he also earned a master’s in biomedical investigation/pathology and accreditation in physician investigation. He joined the New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical College for his internal medicine residency and then Memorial Sloan Kettering for his hematology/oncology fellowship and postgraduate research training.

Viny has previously investigated the effects of cohesin loss of function on transcriptional programming and lineage determination to elucidate important aspects of hematopoietic stem cell biology with relevance to leukemic transformation and therapy. The project has substantial clinical and scientific significance and was recognized with several awards, including a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow Award and an NIH K08 career development award. Viny has published results from the project in Blood, Journal of Experimental Medicine, and Cell Stem Cell, and has co-authored many other impactful publications.

His project funded by the Gerstner program aims to show that chromatin structure and DNA methylation are both essential for gene regulatory networks in hematopoiesis. Using novel mouse models and banked frozen bone marrow samples from MDS patients, Viny aims to illustrate the effects of DNA hypomethylation in normal and cohesin-deficient settings on transcriptional programs in hematopoiesis. Importantly, hypomethylating agents (HMA) are therapeutically effective in ~20% of MDS/AML patients, yet the mechanism of these agents is largely unknown. Viny’s long-term goals are to develop a clinical assay to predict HMA response and develop a novel class of topologically guided therapeutics. 

Mentor: Emmanuelle Passegué, PhD, the Alumni Professor of Genetics & Development and director of the Columbia Stem Cell Initiative

Xiao Zhao

Xiao Zhao

Xiao Zhao, MD

Project: The molecular basis of cholangiocyte identity and injury in biliary atresia


Xiao Zhao, MD, assistant professor of medicine, is a physician-scientist who was recruited to VP&S in January 2020. She earned her MD at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai where she received the highly competitive Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Research Fellowship. She completed her internal medicine residency at Yale New Haven Hospital, where she was chief medical resident, and her gastroenterology fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. 

During postdoctoral research training under the tutelage of Michael Pack, MD, Zhao was instrumental in establishing a novel toxin-mediated zebrafish model to study biliary atresia (BA), an enigmatic liver disease that is the most common cause of neonatal cholestasis and the leading indication for liver transplantation in the pediatric population.

Zhao’s research led to the identification and characterization of biliatresone, a plant-derived toxin linked to naturally occurring BA epidemics in newborn livestock. She subsequently utilized this compound to establish novel models of biliary injury that revealed important mechanistic insights into the human disease and suggested potential novel therapeutic strategies. 

Zhao has received multiple competitive NIH grants to support her work including a KL2 Mentored Career Development Award, through which she recently completed a rigorous Masters of Translational Research degree program. Her findings have been presented at numerous national meetings, first-authored publications in Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and co-authored publications in Science Translational Medicine, and ACS Medicinal Chemical Letters. 

During her time as a Gerstner Scholar, Zhao will conduct functional genomic screens using the CRISPR-Cas9 system to identify key genes and pathway modulating biliatresone toxicity. She also plans to establish and characterize a new murine model of biliary atresia and biliary injury using biliatresone, now that the compound has been successfully synthesized in large quantities by the Organic Chemistry Collaborative Center at Columbia. Zhao’s particular focus will be on studying the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms driving differential cellular responses to toxic insults. These lines of investigation will provide valuable insights into the genetic susceptibility and injury mechanisms underlying human BA and other biliary diseases.

Mentor: Robert Schwabe, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Institute of Human Nutrition

Eliza C. Miller, MD, MS

Eliza C. Miller, MD

Eliza C. Miller

Gerstner Scholar Merit Awardee

Project: Postpartum neurovascular unit dysfunction in women with severe preeclampsia


Eliza Miller, MD, assistant professor of neurology, completed medical school at VP&S and her neurology residency and fellowship in vascular neurology at CUIMC before her appointment as assistant professor in 2017.

Spurred by several challenging cases she encountered on the Stroke Service, Miller as a resident developed an important research direction in stroke in pregnancy and the postpartum period. On her own initiative, she created a detailed database of all strokes in young adults at CUIMC over a seven-year period, which continues to provide robust data for ongoing investigations into risk factors and outcomes for hemorrhagic and ischemic stroke in young people.

During her fellowship, Miller developed a new collaborative project with the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine to explore the relationship between severe pre-eclampsia and disruption of dynamic cerebral autoregulation in the peripartum and postpartum period. She obtained seed funding for the project, recruited collaborators, obtained IRB approval, and was funded with a K23 proposal by the NINDS in 2019. 

As a Gerstner Scholar, Miller has worked with her collaborators to operationalize the Motherhealth Study, a cohort study of women with severe preeclampsia recruited at time of delivery and followed prospectively.

With support from a KL2 Career Development Award from the Columbia Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, in 2020 Miller completed her master’s in patient-oriented research through the Mailman School of Public Health. This degree, designed specifically for clinician-scientists, includes training in biostatistics, epidemiology, responsible conduct of research, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and grant-writing. 

In September 2019, Miller officially opened a new weekly clinic, the Mothers Center Neurovascular Clinic, which is housed in the Mothers Center at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University and is specifically for pregnant and postpartum women with cerebrovascular complications. The clinic has given Miller a dedicated venue to provide clinical care for the complex patients she shares with Maternal-Fetal Medicine, including several of the patients enrolled in her study.

Mentors: Randolph Marshall, MD, MS, Elisabeth K. Harris Professor of Neurology, and Ronald Wapner, MD, professor of obstetrics & gynecology