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UTHSC Researchers Sweep UT President’s Awards Five Years in a Row


The University of Tennessee Health Science Center recently announced its third record-breaking year for research grant awards. This effort to increase research awards by 43% over five years to $122.3 million has had multiple drivers.

The reorganization of the Office of Research led by Steve Goodman, PhD, vice chancellor for Research, has made the environment for research at the university much more investigator friendly. The development of a mature set of well-administered core labs has also been crucial. The growth of The Clinical Trials Network of Tennessee (CTN2), as well as other novel programs, have been important.

However, in the end, it is the quality and effort of investigators on the faculty that is the driving force for research. The deans have recruited and retained outstanding investigators who have driven the research to make this possible. The College of Pharmacy is now the No.14 NIH-funded College of Pharmacy in the nation. The College of Medicine and the College of Nursing have seen dramatic increases in research grant awards.

The UT President’s Awards for Research and Discovery (Discover category) are the pinnacle of research recognition for faculty in the UT  System. This award has gone to UTHSC researchers annually for the last five years, illustrating UTHSC’s upward research trajectory and the outstanding research contribution of the UTHSC faculty.

The UTHSC Winners

Colleen Jonsson, PhD
Colleen Jonsson, PhD

2021: Colleen Jonsson, PhD, Van Vleet Professor of Virology and director of the UTHSC Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL), was honored in June with the 2021 Discover Award for her career as a researcher of infectious diseases, and in particular, for her work on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Jonsson has led teams sequencing the virus, working to determine possible antivirals or therapeutics to treat it, and developing COVID-19 diagnostic tools.

“For me, this really recognizes and affirms all of the dedication of my graduate students and all of the RBL staff and the work that we do,” Dr. Jonsson said. “Secondly, it speaks to the support the university has given to the RBL. I think that’s huge.”

2020: Robert Williams, PhD, UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair in Computational Genomics and

Dr. Robert Williams

chair of the Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics, was honored with the Discover Award in 2020 for advancing UTHSC’s position in the field of bioinformatics and genetics over more than three decades. Dr. Williams has been a leader in multiple national and international projects, including the National Institutes of Health Human Brain Project, which brought together researchers from 80 international institutions to study brain function and disease using genetic data and supercomputer technology.

“I get so much enjoyment out of my work that I am usually blissfully unaware of its impact on the university,” Dr. Williams said. “The Discover Award was an affirmation from an unexpected direction, and therefore, all the more satisfying and motivational.”

Karen Johnson, MD
Karen Johnson, MD

2019: Karen Johnson, MD, MPH, UTHSC College of Medicine Endowed Professor in Women’s Health and chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine, received the Discover Award in 2019. She has brought more than $50 million to UTHSC in NIH funding as a principal investigator, and more than $45 million in NIH and Department of Defense funding as a co-investigator. Dr. Johnson has served as the principal investigator for the UTHSC location of the Women’s Health Initiative and other major national studies. She was the principal investigator at UTHSC for the landmark Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT) funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to determine the best blood pressure for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. SPRINT confirmed the beneficial effects of intensive blood pressure management on mortality and cardiovascular disease, findings that spurred worldwide revision of the definition of hypertension and the clinical practice guidelines for treatment.

“I think getting recognition from one’s university is a great honor,” Dr. Johnson said. “You work to do good science, to find things that prevent disease and improve public health, getting the award recognizes that the years of my work have been spent well.”

Dr. Samuel Dagogo-Jack

2018: Samuel Dagogo-Jack, MD, A.C. Mullins Endowed Chair in Translational Research and director of the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Diabetes, won the Discover Award in 2018. Dr. Dagogo-Jack has been awarded more than 30 grants, including from the NIH and the American Diabetes Association (ADA), totaling more than $20 million over the past 20 years, and served as president-Medicine and Science of the American Diabetes Association in 2015.

He said that his focus as a physician-scientist is on solving problems and asking questions that need answers, rather than on awards, however, the Discover Award was “the most unexpected and delightful experience.”

“I am thankful for that recognition that does, in a way, underscore the importance of one’s career,” Dr. Dagogo-Jack said. Adding that research today is team science, he acknowledged all the contributors to his work, including research assistants, collaborators, coordinators, nurses, and the volunteers who give their time to advance scientific knowledge.

2017: Guy Reed, MD, MS, formerly the Lemuel Diggs Professor of Medicine and chair of the UTHSC Department of Medicine, was recognized in 2017 for his research and development of a safer, more effective therapy for dissolving blood clots. Dr. Reed is now the dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.