UTHSC Leaders Receive UT President’s Awards

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Two leaders from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, one an advocate for health equity and the other a researcher of highly pathogenic viruses, are among six employees honored with the 2021 UT President’s Awards announced today by President Randy Boyd during the UT Board of Trustees meeting at the UTHSC Memphis campus.

Altha Stewart, MD, senior associate dean for Community Health Engagement in the College of Medicine, the director of the UTHSC Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, a professor of psychiatry, and a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, is the honoree in the Connect category. Colleen Jonsson, PhD, a professor and the Endowed Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology in the UTHSC College of Medicine, is the honoree in the Discover category.

The awards are presented in six categories — Educate, Discover, Connect, Support Exempt, Support Nonexempt, and Diversity. Honorees are selected from across the system from nominations by campus and institute leaders.

Working to Improve Health in the Community

Altha Stewart, MD

Altha Stewart, MD, joined UTHSC in 2015 to lead the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth.

The center, which began with a $200,000 grant from the Tennessee Legislature and now has funding in excess of $2 million, has positioned itself to work to reduce the number of young people in the juvenile justice system, and also as a support for families and youth to have better lives. The center is a resource for families dealing with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), exposure to trauma or violence that can contribute to negative behaviors in children, as well as mental health services, and other assistance to deal with the social determinants of health.

“One of UTHSC’s core components of our mission is to positively impact the citizens of the State of Tennessee and beyond through expanding and strengthening community and other partnerships,” wrote UTHSC Chancellor Steve Schwab, MD, in nominating Dr. Stewart. “Dr. Stewart’s long-standing and exemplary record of contributions and community engagement have led to lasting positive effects on the quality of life of at-risk youth, their families, and their neighborhoods. She has laid the foundation of excellence in community­-engaged care and connected UTHSC with vulnerable communities and at-risk populations in meaningful ways that will have a long-lasting impact.”

Dr. Stewart is well versed on the effects of social and economic factors on health outcomes, having worked for decades as the CEO/executive director in large public mental health systems in Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan.

In 2017, two years after joining UTHSC, she proposed and advocated for the selection of the social determinants of health for UTHSC’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), a multiyear commitment that focuses on transforming student learning and enhancing their training. The topic was selected and is now a part of the university’s QEP.

As the senior associate dean for Community Health Engagement in the College of Medicine since 2019, Dr. Stewart is expanding access to health care within the  Memphis community, working alongside faculty, students, and health care partners.

Dr. Stewart leads many funded programs that are positively affecting vulnerable communities. Her current funding is almost $6 million. She is a co-investigator of the Tennessee Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities, a project that is developing effective and accurate communications and educational materials about COVID-19 and vaccination for diverse communities. Last winter, one of the programs she leads helped establish a community garden in the Frayser area of Memphis that will allow residents to have access to fresh produce.

“Dr. Stewart has correctly identified the core problems facing Memphis/Shelby County youth as they navigate stressful life circumstances that include poverty, trauma, violence, and lack of access to resources,” said Ronald L. Cowan, MD, PhD, Harrison Distinguished Professor and chair of the UTHSC Department of Psychiatry. “She has developed a series of programs that have been highly successful in receiving funding support. These programs, in turn, have positively impacted Memphis/Shelby County youth and have forged strong connections with community organizations and with individual families and communities that will ensure that UTHSC continues to have a sustained impact on improving the health of these communities.”

Most recently, Dr. Stewart received the prestigious Solomon Carter Fuller Award from the American Psychiatric Association. The award honors a Black citizen who has pioneered in an area that has significantly improved the quality of life for Black people. The award was established in 1969 and is named after Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, the first Black psychiatrist in America.

As the first Black president of the American Psychiatric Association (2018-2019), Dr. Stewart worked to improve and increase access to mental health care for all and advocated for reducing the stigma associated with seeking treatment.

A native of Memphis, Dr. Stewart received her bachelor’s degree from Christian Brothers University and was among the first cohort of women admitted there. She received her medical degree from Temple University Medical School, and completed her residency at Hahnemann University Hospital, now Drexel University.

Leading Research on the Coronavirus Pandemic

Colleen Jonsson, PhD

Colleen Jonsson, PhD, a professor and director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at UTHSC, has spent her career studying viruses. When the novel coronavirus emerged in early 2020, she stepped to the forefront of research to decipher its origins, its spread, and its treatment.

A professor in the UTHSC Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Biochemistry, Dr. Jonsson was selected as the President’s Award winner in the Discover category for her longtime career as a researcher of infectious diseases, and in particular, for her work on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. She has led teams sequencing the virus, working to determine possible antivirals or therapeutics to treat it, and developing COVID-19 diagnostic tools. At the same time, she has remained active in training and mentoring graduate students and younger faculty, who will be the next generation of virus researchers.

“Dr. Jonsson’s more-than-three-decade career of studying highly pathogenic human viruses has led her to this moment, where her education, talents, lifetime of preparation and research have positioned her for worldwide leadership in understanding and identifying treatments and control mechanisms for the novel coronavirus,” Chancellor Schwab wrote in nominating Dr. Jonsson.

Dr. Jonsson originally studied to be a biologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. During graduate school at Purdue University, she focused on fungal interaction. In the early days of the HIV outbreak in the United States, she refocused her research on retroviruses.

Dr. Jonsson was recruited to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, just as the initial outbreak of the Hantavirus occurred in the early 2000s. For the next half decade, she worked with the highest-level biosafety research labs at the United States Army Research Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, on Hantavirus research.

In 2008, she moved to the University of Louisville to continue her antiviral work and begin the research programs and operations for the newly constructed Regional Biocontainment Laboratory there. In 2017, she transferred to UTHSC from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where she was the director of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and Beaman Distinguished Professor of Microbiology.

She was recruited to UTHSC to direct and raise the research profile of the university’s  Regional Biocontainment Laboratory. In less than two years, she secured a $21 million National Institutes of Health grant to set up a Center of Excellence in Encephalitic Alphavirus Therapeutics at the RBL to discover antiviral treatments for deadly viruses spread not only to horses, but to people, by infected mosquitoes. This alphavirus work, as well as her previous work on other viruses, including SARS CoV (the SARS outbreak of 2003), positioned her to lead her team at UTHSC to face COVID-19.

As the director of the RBL, one of roughly a dozen federally funded labs authorized to study highly contagious pathogens, she quickly turned over the lab to coronavirus research.

The RBL received live samples of the coronavirus in late February. Dr. Jonsson and her team began growing the samples so they could test against compounds (small molecules) that could prove to be treatments. She collaborated with many regional and national scientists and laboratories, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, identifying several existing drugs as possible therapeutics for the virus.

Dr. Johnson has been continuously funded as a principal investigator on multiple grants from prestigious national funders, including the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, for more than 25 years.

“The important work and efforts led by Dr. Jonsson tackle critical public health problems, help elevate the stature of UTHSC in infectious disease research, and will position the UTHSC campus to achieve new heights in competing for national funding and to continue making critical discoveries in related research areas,” Kui Li, PhD, interim chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry, wrote in support of her nomination.

The President’s Awards are the highest honor given by the UT System to employees. Winners receive a plaque and $3,000. Other honorees are: Ray Witmer, associate professor in the UT Martin Department of Engineering, Educate; Valara Sample, UT Chattanooga, executive director for Residential Education and Campus Life, Support (Exempt); Tammie Cole, an administrative coordinator for the UT System, Support (Non-exempt); Anthony Prewitt, UT Martin interim director for multicultural affairs, Diversity.