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Two from UTHSC Honored with UT President’s Awards


Two distinguished representatives of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center were among the winners of the 2019 UT President’s Awards announced today by UT Interim President Randy Boyd.

Karen C. Johnson, MD, MPH, UTHSC College of Medicine Endowed Professor in Women’s Health, and Kathy Gibbs, MEd, MS, NCC, BCC, assistant vice chancellor for the Office of Student Academic Support Services and Inclusion (SASSI), were among five honored with the awards that were presented during a luncheon in Nashville prior to Boyd’s State of the University Address.

The awards, the highest honor a UT employee can receive from the university, recognize exceptional contributions to the education, research, and outreach missions of the system. They are presented in the categories of Educate, Discover, Connect, Support, and Diversity. Honorees are selected from across the system from nominations by campus and institute leaders. The winners receive a plaque and a monetary award of $3,000.

“Our university would not be where it is today if it weren’t for our employees’ dedication, and I am continually energized by their extraordinary, life-changing work,” Boyd said.

Karen C. Johnson (Photo by Allen Gillespie/UTHSC)

Dr. Karen Johnson’s Research Improves Health Worldwide

Dr. Johnson was honored in the Discover category. A tenured professor in the Departments of Preventive Medicine and Medicine, she has brought more than $50 million to UTHSC in NIH funding as a principal investigator over more than two decades, and more than $45 million in NIH and Department of Defense funding as a co-investigator.

“Dr. Johnson has played a lead role in solving several major health issues that affect the quality of life of people worldwide and reducing the cost of health care,” UTHSC Chancellor Steve J. Schwab, MD, said in a letter nominating her.

Dr. Johnson is the principal investigator for the UTHSC location of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a 40-site clinical trial and cohort study of more than 161,000 women that began in 1993 to look at diseases that affect women and how to help them stay healthier. The study, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and expected to continue to 2020, is best known for its recommendation that menopausal hormone therapy should not be started or continued for the purpose of preventing cardiovascular disease. The study found estrogen plus progestin increased risk of breast cancer, and the WHI hormone trial resulted in a Black Box warning on all estrogen products for postmenopausal women. The use of these products fell 50 percent afterward, and the rates of breast cancer fell. In this way, the study played a part in preventing breast cancer worldwide.

Dr. Johnson was the principal investigator at UTHSC for the landmark Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT) funded by the NHLBI to determine the best blood pressure for reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. She was the national vice chair of the steering committee for the study.

In August 2015, the SPRINT trial was stopped early, when the beneficial effects of intensive blood pressure management on mortality and cardiovascular disease were discovered. The findings have spurred worldwide revision of the definition of hypertension and of the clinical practice guidelines for treatment, results expected to prevent tens of thousands of cardiovascular disease events and deaths.

In January 2019, The SPRINT MIND clinical trial, an offshoot of the SPRINT study, released findings showing that intensive lowering of blood pressure reduced the risk of mild cognitive impairment, a known risk factor for dementia.

As the principal investigator for the Memphis site of the ongoing Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), Dr. Johnson has played a major role in helping to show that long-term, sustained weight loss is possible for people with diabetes.

She is also the principal investigator for the UTHSC site of the TARGIT (Treating Adults at Risk for Weight Gain with Interactive Technology) study aimed at finding ways to help smokers stop smoking without gaining weight by using interactive technology.

And as the principal investigator for the D2d (Vitamin D and Type 2 Diabetes) study at UTHSC, Dr. Johnson leads the study funded by the NIDDK to determine if vitamin D can prevent those at risk of diabetes from getting the disease.

Dr. Johnson has been named to the Thomson Reuters list of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.” She has produced more than 250 peer-reviewed publications and has been named on the list of highly cited researchers for numerous years.

A native Memphian and graduate of Memphis Preparatory School and Lambuth University, Dr. Johnson received her medical degree from the UT College of Medicine and completed an internal medicine residency at the university. A residency in preventive medicine and a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore cemented her interest in clinical research and prevention.

Dr. Johnson joined the UTHSC faculty in 1990 and served four years as interim chair for the Department of Preventive Medicine. She is a past president of the UTHSC Faculty Senate and a past member of the board of trustees for the UT System.

“I feel very honored to accept this award from the University of Tennessee,” Dr. Johnson said. “I’ve had a lot of support and very good colleagues who have helped me do my research, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with really top-notch people in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and at universities across the nation, who have helped me do this important work.”

Kathy Gibbs Committed to Supporting Students for Success

Kathy Gibbs (Photo by Allen Gillespie/UTHSC)

Kathy Gibbs was honored in the Support category.

“I am honored and humbled to be receiving the University of Tennessee President’s Award for Support,” Gibbs said. “I feel like I should be thanking the University of Tennessee for giving me a job that has become my calling. Working in UTHSC’s Student Academic Support Services and Inclusion is my dream job.”

Throughout her more than 26-year career at UTHSC, Gibbs has championed expanding academic and mental health services on campus, even before this became a trend across the country. Among her letters of support in nomination, Gibbs was described as being “at the forefront of assisting students with strategies to manage the academic rigors of professional school, long before student academic support was in vogue.”

In 2018 Gibbs was promoted from director to assistant vice chancellor of SASSI and has been vital in transforming the scope of services offered to students and the culture of care at UTHSC. She was among the team that developed a plan, based on recommendations from The JED Foundation, the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association (NaBITA), and the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, to integrate both academic and mental counseling services for students.

Today, with the purpose of destigmatizing mental health care by marrying academic assistance with mental health support, SASSI has grown into a full-service center, where students can receive support in both academic and mental health.

Gibbs has expanded the staff at SASSI to include a full-time care navigator, two counselors, and a counselor dedicated solely to residents. The office has also strengthened the training offered to faculty and staff, who directly impact the retention and success of students, offering certification courses on suicide prevention and intervention taught by NaBITA.

In 2018, Gibbs and SASSI launched their #takecare campaign, “Thriving, Not Just Surviving,” a campus initiative focused on mental hygiene, wellness, suicide and substance abuse prevention, diversity, and health disparities. The initiative sheds light on normalizing self-care and prevention in seeking out academic and mental health support, while emphasizing to students the importance of taking care of themselves and each other.

As part of the #takecare campaign, SASSI hosted events throughout the semester including thriving fairs, which offered massages, Reiki, and wellness information; Warrior Within panels, which featured students and faculty leaders sharing personal stories on resiliency and how they successfully cope with life’s challenges; and sponsoring national wellness leaders to speak to students, including Good Think Inc.’s, Kwabena Blankson, MD, who specializes in positive psychology.

“Every day, I have the opportunity to work with amazing and courageous students in an environment of passionate and visionary staff and administrators, who are brave enough and care so much for our students that they ventured into unchartered territory to send a direct message to students, the campus, our system and the health sciences,” Gibbs said. “To dispel the myth that healers don’t need healing. That in order for our students to take care of their patients, they deserve and need to know, and be equipped to take care of themselves in their demanding programs and future health care careers. Because of the passion and vision from Dr. Lori Gonzalez and support from Chancellor Steve Schwab and Dr. Ken Brown, the trajectory of UTHSC, UT, and the culture of the health sciences will lead us into the next phase of preparation of students in Tennessee.”

Gibbs received her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Montevallo in 1979, a Master of Education degree in 1990 and a Master of Science in 1992, from the University of Memphis. She is a recipient of the 2017 Chancellor’s Exempt Staff Award, which recognizes non-faculty exempt employees for their commitment and service to the UTHSC community. She is also a past recipient of the IMHOTEP Award, the highest honor given by the Student Government Association Executive Council for staff involvement in student activities and initiatives.

Other 2019 President’s Award winners are: Rapinder “Rupy” Sawhney, UT Knoxville professor in industrial systems and engineering; Sarah Hillyer, director of the Center for Sport, Peace and Society in the UT Knoxville College of Education, Health and Human Sciences; and Valerie Rutledge, dean of the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies at UT Chattanooga.