VP&S Names 2019 Gerstner Scholars

Four physician-scientists at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons have been named 2019 Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Scholars, and a fifth physician-scientist has been named a 2019 Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Merit Awardee.

The Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Scholars Program annually 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.

The Gerstner Family Foundation has provided funds for the program.


2019 Gerstner Scholars

Alejandro (Alex) Chavez, MD, PhD 

Alex Chavez

For the past several years, Alex Chavez, assistant professor of pathology & cell biology, has focused on creating technologies for the programmable control of DNA and RNA on genome-wide scales. He has produced reagents and methods that enable facile genome modification, activation, or repression, both alone and in any desired combination. 

His work employs a variety of techniques ranging from oligo chip synthesis and library-based screening to iPS cell differentiation and live cell imaging. He utilizes a variety of model systems, including yeast and human cell cultures, to assure that the technologies he generates are applicable to a broad swath of the scientific community. 

Chavez focuses on applying his technologies to answer questions within the area of neurodegeneration to gain insights into why and how specific subsets of neurons die in diseases of the aging brain. Chavez’s approach is unique in pioneering library-based methods to understand common and unique pathways that are altered in neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. 

Chavez completed his undergraduate studies at Northwestern University, where he performed one of the first genome-wide RNAi screens that identified regulators of protein aggregation. He earned his MD and PhD in the University of Pennsylvania’s MD/PhD program, where he studied mechanisms of DNA repair and genome integrity.


Amélie Collins, MD, PhD

Amélie Collins

Upon moving to Columbia University for her pediatric residency and neonatology-perinatology fellowship training, Amélie Collins, assistant professor of pediatrics, developed an interest in the development of the hematopoietic system in the fetus. Her work on the development of natural killer cells in the human fetus resulted in an insightful paper published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight. 

Collins’ goal is to gain in-depth expertise in hematopoietic stem cells and the biology of early multipotent progenitor cells to complement her training in the immunology field and to develop new approaches for the treatment of preterm and term infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. Her interest in understanding how fetal hematopoiesis contributes to fetal/neonatal susceptibility to infection has led her to study the cells at the top of the hierarchy of the hematopoietic system.

Collins’ interest in science was sparked by an immunology course at the University of Chicago, where she received her undergraduate degree in biology with honors. She earned her MD and PhD at New York University School of Medicine.


Maya Mikami, MD, PhD

Maya Mikami

Patients with underlying asthma or COPD are at increased risk for suffering from acute perioperative bronchospastic airway events in the perioperative period, which can lead to significant morbidity and mortality. 

With her collaborators, Maya Mikami, assistant professor of anesthesiology, has formulated a novel and exciting hypothesis that may underpin the cellular mechanism or mechanisms by which an emerging class of promising asthma therapeutics may acutely relax airway smooth muscle. She and her team have compelling preliminary data that administration of a peptide fragment of actin-binding protein gelsolin relaxes airway smooth muscle. In addition, they will investigate the role of this actin-binding protein in regulating not only airway smooth muscle relaxation, but also immune cell function, specifically alveolar macrophage activation, because the pathophysiology of asthma and COPD involves both airway narrowing and inflammation.

Mikami earned her MD and PhD degrees at Tohoku University School of Medicine in Sendai, Japan, and an MPH at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. She conducted neuroscience research in the laboratory of Jay Yang, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist and anesthesiologist at Columbia, and she decided to re-train in clinical anesthesiology in the United States, although she was a fully trained anesthesiologist in Japan.


Vidhu Thaker, MD

Vidhu Thaker

Vidhu Thaker, assistant professor of pediatrics, began her career as a clinician and has had a strong and consistent interest in research. As a pediatric endocrinologist, Thaker is working at the intersection of clinical care, bioinformatics, and molecular biology to solve problems related to human health and disease. The research focus of her lab is genetic determinants of severe early childhood obesity and its clinical consequences, with emphasis on children from minority populations. She is working to identify the genes and pathways that predispose individuals to severe obesity, using human DNA sequencing data and molecular expression of the identified genes in tissue and cellular expression profiles. 

She and her team are modeling the identified genes in induced pluripotent stem cell-derived human hypothalamic neurons coupled with high throughput methods like single cell and bulk RNA sequencing. Her research also encompasses rare syndromes with severe rapid onset obesity and hypothalamic dysfunction (ROHHAD syndrome) and metabolomic profiling in youth and adults undergoing bariatric surgery to identify biomarkers predictive of long-term cardiometabolic outcomes. Thaker’s long-term goal is to identify biological targets amenable to intervention for individuals and cohorts with severe obesity and associated diseases.

Thaker earned her MBBS from Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical College in India and her MD from T.N. Medical College and B.Y.L. Nair Hospital in Mumbai, India. She received a second MD from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. She completed her postdoctoral training at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.


2019 Gerstner Merit Awardee

Thomas Connors, MD

Thomas Connors

The research of Thomas Connors, assistant professor of pediatrics, has yielded new knowledge about how the development of the immune system in early life impacts the health of children. He has made use of unique sampling to define how T cells mediate lung disease in children with viral respiratory tract infections and has identified a distinct T cell phenotype in the airway of children with the most severe disease during viral infection. 

Connors was named a Gerstner Scholar in 2016 and, with additional support from the program, he will continue to investigate the basis of the unique adaptive immune response phenotype found in the airway of children with the most severe disease and define how T cells in the airway provide protection during infection. He and his team have enrolled children admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit in Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian who require a breathing tube due to severe disease from viral infections or non-infectious causes. Routine care for these patients includes maintaining the patency of the breathing tube by performing suctioning. The material collected from routine airway suctioning contains immune cells, which allows Dr. Connors a unique insight into the immune system in the airway environment. 

Over the past year, Connors and his team published the results of their research in the Journal of Immunology. He also has expanded his research efforts to establish important collaborations that will be invaluable to future investigations. His research has resulted in grant funding from the NIH and the Irving Institute.