P&S Names Four New Gerstner Scholars

Four P&S faculty members—Joy Vink, Nasir Naqvi, Max O'Donnell, and Sameer Sheth—have been named 2015 Gerstner Scholars. Every year since 2008, the Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Scholar Program has selected four young P&S physician-scientists to conduct translational research.

The research of this year’s scholars has the potential to uncover new insights into the brain circuits that govern obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction, find new ways to speed up drug development for tuberculosis, and identify new drug targets to prevent preterm birth.

The fund provides an annual stipend for up to three years that can be used by the awardee for salary or laboratory support. All Gerstner Scholars devote at least half their time to translational research and report on their progress to the Gerstner Foundation on an annual basis. “Physician-scientists are essential if we are to translate basic research into new treatments,” said Lee Goldman, MD, EVP and dean, and Robert S. Kass, PhD, vice dean for research, in announcing the names. “We are enormously grateful to Mr. Gerstner and the Gerstner Family Foundation for their generosity in encouraging the work of these gifted young faculty members.”

Joy Vink, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics & gynecology

One in eight pregnancies in the United States results in preterm birth, accounting for 500,000 births a year. Many premature babies do not survive, and many who survive face lifelong disabilities and chronic illnesses.

During her residency, Joy Vink frequently treated patients struggling to prevent preterm birth, and she saw firsthand the emotional toll it left on patients who gave birth to premature infants. She joined Columbia in 2009 as a maternal/fetal medicine fellow to continue her research into the reasons behind preterm birth and how it may be prevented.

Preterm birth happens when the cervix undergoes remodeling, softens, and dilates. Dr. Vink recently identified a receptor (ANXTR2) in the human cervix that senses stretch as the fetus grows and may control the subsequent cervical remodeling process. With support from the Gerstner scholarship, Dr. Vink will try to learn how the human cervix naturally responds to stretch, how the cervix from a woman with premature cervical remodeling responds, and whether the ANXTR2 receptor is involved. The research should determine if the receptor can be targeted to prevent premature cervical remodeling and preterm birth.

Dr. Vink received her MD from the University of Virginia and completed her residency in OB/GYN at Georgetown University.

Nasir Naqvi, MD, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry

Where do cravings for drugs, nicotine, and alcohol come from and how can we control them? Nasir Naqvi tries to answer those questions with studies that mix brain imaging and tests of behavioral and cognitive skills with psychotherapies and medications.

Disulfiram, one of the oldest and most effective treatments for alcohol use disorder, changes the way the body metabolizes alcohol and causes nausea and headaches when alcohol is consumed. Patients taking disulfiram learn to avoid alcohol, but the brain circuits involved have not been studied.

During his Gerstner scholarship, Dr. Naqvi will use fMRI in a study of heavy drinkers to uncover these circuits and determine if brain imaging can help predict which patients are likely to relapse during disulfiram treatment. The findings will show psychiatrists the neurobiological underpinnings of current treatments and how they may be improved.

Dr. Naqvi received his MD and PhD from the University of Iowa. His doctoral research, published in Science, uncovered the role of the insula in cigarette addiction. As a result of this work, the insula is now considered a therapeutic target for addictive disorders. During his psychiatry residency and substance abuse research fellowship at Columbia, Dr. Naqvi received several prestigious awards, including the Leon Levy Fellowship, the NIMH Outstanding Resident Award, and the Laughlin Fellowship from the American Academy of Psychiatrists.

Max R. O’Donnell, MD, assistant professor of medicine

As tuberculosis becomes more resistant to drugs, the disease is on the rise in many parts of the world. The course of treatment for drug-resistant TB is complex, can take 18 months or more, and has low cure rates. Deaths are increasing, consequently, but few new treatments are in development because TB clinical trials are lengthy and costly.

Dr. O’Donnell wants to speed up TB trials with a way to rapidly detect drug-resistant TB. He has tested an engineered virus of the tuberculosis bacterium that, when added to patient sputum samples, fluoresces when it enters active, resistant bacteria. With this biomarker, Dr. O’Donnell may be able to predict which patients are likely to fail TB treatment months later and detect TB drug-resistance in real-time as it emerges.

During his Gerstner scholarship, Dr. O’Donnell will test the biomarker in TB patients in South Africa, where drug-resistant TB is prevalent. If it works, the biomarker will lead to more efficient and inexpensive TB trials and increase the TB drug-development pipeline. Dr. O’Donnell received his MD and MPH from Tufts University and did his internal medicine residency at Columbia before completing a pulmonary/critical care medicine fellowship at Boston University. He was recruited from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 2014 to strengthen TB and global health research in Columbia’s Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine.

Sameer Sheth, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurological surgery

The study of cognitive processes in people is a unique niche that requires researchers to have both scientific and neurosurgical expertise.

Dr. Sheth, a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, is using those skills to further advance our understanding of the brain circuits involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For years, he has been treating select patients suffering from OCD through neurosurgical procedures, and he continues to explore treatment possibilities with his research.

Brain surgery and deep brain stimulation have shown promise in alleviating OCD symptoms in people who have not responded to conventional therapies, but further investigation is needed to better understand why the brain reacts positively to certain procedures and which patients are most likely to respond. Despite the potential to positively alter a patient’s life, psychiatrists are reticent to recommend—and patients hesitant to undergo—the neurosurgical procedures until more is understood about them.

In a recent retrospective study, Dr. Sheth identified structural features present in white and gray matter before treatment to predict the patient’s response. With Gerstner Scholar support, he will test this relationship in a larger group of patients scheduled to undergo these procedures. Using imaging and EEG methods, he will study structural and functional changes in the brain following treatment.

Dr. Sheth received his MD and PhD from UCLA, where he performed his doctoral research in one of the first sites of the Human Connectome Project, a multiyear project producing data-driven graphic representations of all human neural connectivity. He completed his training in neurosurgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where he also completed a postdoc in neurophysiology. He joined Columbia in 2013.


Gerstner Scholars