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School of Medicine

Talented assistant professors


Article first appeared in the spring 2010 issue of the Dean’s Discovery Report.

They’re still in the early stages of their careers, but these three investigators are attracting recognition for their research accomplishments in the high-need areas of aging, health disparities and rehabilitation medicine.

Juan Carlos Arango, Ph.D.

Assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation

When Arango was completing his undergraduate psychology degree, his brother suffered a traumatic brain injury as the result of a motorcycle accident. The aftermath of that experience set his career course. “I realized just how common these types of injuries were in my country of Colombia,” said Arango. He also discovered that not only were there few treatments available, but that his family was on their own in dealing with the cognitive, emotional and behavioral changes that often accompany traumatic brain injury.

Today, Arango’s research focuses on individuals with traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury. He is particularly interested in how a patient’s race influences their treatment and has secured $3 million in grant funding for research relating to culturally diverse populations. With nearly 90 journal articles and book chapters to his credit, his accomplishments have been honored three times by the American Psychological Association. Those honors include the APA’s Mitch Rosenthal Early Career Award that recognizes an individual in the first decade of their career judged to have made the most significant contributions to the science of rehabilitation psychology.

Arango now plans to steer his research toward developing evidence-based programs to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, racial disparities. “Every patient, regardless of race, ethnicity or religious background has the right to quality care and community assistance,” he says.

Qinglian Liu, Ph.D.

Assistant professor of physiology and biophysics

Proteins are among the smallest working parts of the body, carrying out virtually all the biological functions within each cell. This ability is directly tied to their 3-D structure: when a protein is misshapen, it cannot function properly. A specific class of regulatory proteins known as chaperones — Hsp70 in particular — are vital to the integrity of the 3-D structure.

Interestingly, levels of Hsp70 normally decrease with age, which could explain the progressive accumulation of abnormal or damaged proteins that is seen in neurodegenerative diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Increasing the Hsp70 level extends life and dramatically slows down the onset of neurodegenerative diseases in laboratory studies of animals and cell cultures. To accomplish this, Hsp70 partners with other proteins and genes. “However, the nature and roles of these interactions are largely unknown,” says Liu.

Her aim to shed light on those processes has resulted in her being named an Ellison Medical Foundation New Scholar in Aging. The competitive four-year grant award totals $400,000 supporting her studies that use biochemistry and genetics tools as well as x-ray crystallography to create snapshots of proteins’ 3-D shapes. “Our research will provide a structural basis for developing small molecule drugs that specifically target the Hsp70 chaperone systems,” says Liu.

Alton Hart Jr., M.D., M.P.H.

Assistant professor of internal medicine and associate scientific director of the Center on Health Disparities

Far more than a place for a haircut and a shave, the barbershop is used by African-American men as a social network. According to Hart, there’s an openness there that’s not found in most places. He wanted to connect his research interest in health disparities with a setting that would be culturally relevant and appropriate for reaching African-American men. By developing a network of barbershops that are open to participating in research, he’s done just that.

Hart’s research has been supported by a five-year mentored career development grant from the American Cancer Society to develop an electronic decision-making aid. Initially, the interactive intervention will be used to guide barbershop patrons through making informed decisions about prostate cancer screening, but if effective it will be adapted to other health-care decisions for African-American men.

His research has produced some interesting findings. To date, most research has reported that African-Americans prefer a passive role in health care decision making. But Hart’s findings, published last year in the Journal of the National Medical Association, indicate that African-American men want an active or collaborative role with their physician. He’s planning to follow up this pilot study with a larger enrollment to see if the findings hold true.

Recently, Hart expanded his research to address cigarette smoking and nicotine dependence. Hart explains that “More African-American men are dying from lung cancer than any other racial or ethnic group,” and although African-Americans smoke fewer cigarettes a day, they suffer from more tobacco-related diseases. As part of a study funded by the National Cancer Institute, Hart will explore the link between stress and cigarette smoking. He has called on his barbershop network, surveying patrons to learn what factors affect their ability to cope with life stressors and what kinds of interventions might be helpful as African-American males try to quit smoking.