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Four from UT Health Science Center Honored for Outstanding Service with UT President’s Awards

The 2024 UT President’s Award winners from UT Health Science Center are, clockwise from top left, Dr. David Shibata, Ammar Ammar, Dr. Bruce Keisling, and Dr. Karen Derefinko

Four exceptional employees from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center were among 15 faculty and staff members honored with the 2024 UT President’s Awards announced today by UT System President Randy Boyd during the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees meeting in Knoxville.

They are David Shibata, MD, a professor, Harwell Wilson Alumni Endowed Chair in the Department of Surgery, and director/chief medical officer of the UT Health Science Center’s Cancer Program; Ammar Ammar, assistant vice chancellor for information technology and Information Security Officer in Information Technology Services; Bruce Keisling, PhD, executive director for the Center on Developmental Disabilities; and Karen Derefinko, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine.

The awards are presented in seven categories based on the UT System’s Be One UT values — Bold and Impactful, Embrace Diversity, Optimistic and Visionary, Nimble and Innovative, Excel in All We Do, United and Connected, Transparent and Trusted. Honorees are selected from across the UT System from nominations by campus and institute leaders.

Two winners are selected in each category, one from faculty and one from staff. The President’s Awards are the highest honor given by the UT System to employees. Winners receive a plaque and $3,000.

Dr. David Shibata: Expanding Cancer Care

Dr. Shibata was honored in the Bold and Impactful category with the faculty award. This award honors someone who serves the state by tackling grand challenges and makes a difference by thinking big and serving with a purpose.

As the executive director and chief medical officer of the UT Health Science Center Cancer Program, he was honored for his vision in developing the cancer program with partner hospital Regional One Health.

“On a local level, Dr. Shibata, like many of us here, is acutely aware and was motivated to come to Memphis by the great challenges faced by our community around cancer care and cancer prevention,” Nia Zalamea, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, wrote in support of his nomination. “Dr. Shibata and his team have moved to make the university central in bringing together the entire Mid-South community around cancer.”

Dr. Shibata, who joined UT Health Science Center in 2015, holds multiple national leadership positions. He is the chair of the Education Committee for the Society of Surgical Oncology, a member of the Leadership Committee for the American Society of Clinical Oncology Gastrointestinal Cancer Symposium, and on the Board of Governors for the American College of Surgeons.

“Dr. David Shibata has demonstrated bold, impactful leadership through his ability to identify key challenges, think big by developing ambitious large-scale solutions, and make a significant positive difference regionally and nationally,” Chancellor Peter Buckley, MD, wrote in support.

Ammar Ammar: Improving Cybersecurity

Ammar Ammar, assistant vice chancellor and chief technology and information security officer in Information Technology Services, was honored with the Bold and Impactful staff award.

He was lauded for his proactive approach to cybersecurity, strategic modernization efforts, and innovative integration of AI to improve operations at the college and university level.

“Ammar’s efforts to improve network reliability and speed have ensured the smooth operation of both our local and distance learning programs, which is critical in our increasingly digital educational environment,” Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Raaj Kurapati, wrote in nominating Ammar. “Furthermore, his strategic push towards a cloud-first approach will modernize our IT services, creating a seamless and efficient experience for our community.”

Ammar is incorporating AI into the university’s data and analytics, networking, and cybersecurity services, said Vikki Massey, associate vice chancellor of Information Technology Services. He worked with the College of Nursing to develop an AI chatbot for its students.

“His leadership has fortified UTHSC’s digital infrastructure, enhanced educational opportunities, and positioned the institution as a trailblazer in harnessing emerging technologies,” Chancellor Buckley wrote.

Dr. Bruce Keisling: Uniting Communities

Dr. Keisling, professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Medical Education and the executive director of the Center on Developmental Disabilities, won the United and Connected faculty award.

Dr. Keisling, a psychologist with decades of experience in the field of developmental disabilities, was honored for his ability to bring together individuals and groups for a wide-reaching positive impact.

He has led the Center on Developmental Disabilities since 2017 and served as its associate director for nine years before that. In 2021, Dr. Keisling was named a Fellow of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

“Bruce values bringing people together and collaborating,” wrote Chandra Alston, vice chancellor of Human Resources at UT Health Science Center. “His leadership of the Shelby County Relative Caregiver Program throughout the years has been remarkable in uniting several units on campus to provide services and supports to some of the most vulnerable and underserved members of our community.”

The Shelby County Relative Caregiver Program was founded in 2001 to support children and teens who are being raised by relatives because their parents are unable to do so. It also supports the individuals who are caring for the children of relatives. The program helps maintain stability in the family and keep children under their family’s care, even though parents are unable to care for them. 

“The program has maintained strong support from a diverse array of internal and external collaborators, including the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Facilities, faculty and staff in the Colleges of Medicine and Nursing, the University of Tennessee Extension Office, the Community Services Agency, local behavioral health facilities, Shelby County Courts systems, local school systems, faith-based community initiatives, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, Tennessee Department of Human Services, and local politicians who support and advocate for program services provided to families in Shelby County,” wrote Carolyn Graff, PhD, RN, professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in the College of Nursing.

Dr. Karen Derefinko: Embodying Integrity

Dr. Derefinko, an associate professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine in the College of Medicine, received the Transparent and Trusted award for faculty.

“Dr. Derefinko epitomizes integrity, accountability, and proactive communication, which are all hallmarks of a transparent and trusted faculty member,” Chancellor Buckley wrote. “Through her confidential grievance work, devotion to research ethics, and proactive outreach to regulators, Dr. Derefinko demonstrates an exceptional commitment to fostering openness ensuring oversight and maintaining the highest standards.”

Dr. Derefinko’s primary research focus is on substance abuse and addiction treatment and prevention.

Recently, she became the president elect for the Faculty Senate, after serving as its secretary.

“Her involvement in various grievance committees exemplifies her deep respect for confidentiality and procedural fairness,” wrote PJ Koltnow, MS, MSPAS, PA-C, immediate past-president of the Faculty Senate. “Her conduct not only upholds but heightens the esteem of our Senate processes among faculty members.”

Karen Johnson, MD, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine, wrote Dr. Derefinko is a “trusted team member” in research. “She is deeply devoted to research integrity and preventing scientific misconduct, resulting in greater trust in the research findings by the general public. She has garnered a reputation as a trusted researcher with several federal research funding agencies and has earned an international reputation as a trusted consultant in the area of contingency management for substance use disorders.”

All the winners will be honored by President Boyd and his Be One UT cabinet at a luncheon in August.