Exceptional Scholars Recognized for Their Achievements

UM Provost Jeffrey Duerk honors excellence in faculty research.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

UM Provost Jeffrey Duerk honors excellence in faculty research.

Exceptional Scholars Recognized for Their Achievements

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Provost’s Award for Scholarly Activity honors faculty from a variety of disciplines.

A gastroenterologist whose research could lead to better ways to treat inflammatory bowel disease, a physician-scientist dedicated to finding a cure for kidney diseases, a mathematician considered one of the foremost algebraic geometers of his generation, and an atmospheric scientist who studies the predictability of climate are the recipients of the 2018 Provost’s Award for Scholarly Activity.

Maria T. Abreu, professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology and director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at the Miller School of Medicine; Alessia Fornoni, professor of medicine and molecular and cellular pharmacology at the Miller School and chief of the Katz Family Division of Nephrology and Hypertension; Ludmil Katzarkov, professor of mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, were honored last week by Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Jeffrey Duerk, Vice Provost David Birnbach, and Vice Provost for Research John Bixby during a ceremony in the UM Fieldhouse at the Watsco Center.

Also honored were three recipients of the Provost’s Funding Award and 41 recipients of the Provost’s Research Awards.

The annual Provost’s Award for Scholarly Activity recognizes UM faculty who have demonstrated excellence in research by either a single unique achievement or years of high-quality scholarly productivity. Nominated by their deans and selected by a committee composed of previous awardees, this year’s recipients all have sustained research accomplishments in their respective fields.

Abreu is dedicated to the study of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Her research has focused on several clinically relevant aspects of host-bacterial interactions. Specifically, Abreu’s laboratory has identified a central role for toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) in human colitis-associated cancer and certain sporadic colon cancers. Patients with ulcerative colitis are at increased risk for developing colon cancer. Abreu has demonstrated that TLR4 acts as an oncogene in the intestine and can activate β-catenin, a central mechanism in colon cancer. This was a seminal observation that highlighted the intersection between innate immune signaling and tumorigenesis and offers opportunities for clinical intervention. Since her initial description, many investigators have explored the contribution of innate immune signaling in various cancers.

Abreu’s most recent research interests relate to understanding what causes IBD in Hispanic immigrants to South Florida. Her group is using the rapid rise in IBD incidence in immigrants from Latin America as a window into what the environmental, dietary, and microbial triggers may be for IBD more broadly.

Fornoni has maintained a focused research program that has provided novel and seminal contributions to our understanding of the pathogenesis of kidney disease. Through her pioneering work on insulin signaling, cholesterol metabolism, and sphingolipid-related pathways, Fornoni uncovered novel pathogenetic mechanisms and therapeutic approaches for glomerular disorders. Her internationally recognized research findings, which are now being translated into humans with novel therapeutic applications, have challenged existing paradigms and dramatically altered the research direction in these areas. She also invented a cell-based assay that is currently being utilized for high content screening of drug libraries and for the stratification of patients with kidney disease.

Fornoni, who is also director and chair of the Peggy and Harold Katz Drug Discovery Center, is the first female nephrologist in UM history to be offered membership in the American Society of Clinical Investigation. Moving forward, she hopes to bring industry, private investors, and nonprofit organizations to the table with the intent to match science with innovation and patients’ motivation to find a cure for kidney diseases.

Katzarkov’s research interests include algebraic geometry, symplectic geometry, and string theory. His participation in the Simons Collaboration on Homological Mirror Symmetry, launched in late 2015, involves a field of mathematics inspired by theoretical physics. He and a postdoctoral research assistant professor, Andrew Harder, are representing the University of Miami in a multi-institutional project involving the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Berkeley, and Brandeis, among others. Funding comes from a Simons Foundation grant, which, as its website says, aims to “stimulate progress on fundamental scientific questions of major importance in mathematics.” In this case, the goal is to prove mirror symmetry, a conjecture formulated by University of Miami Distinguished Professor Maxim Kontsevich, which springs from the world of theoretical physics. 

Katzarkov recently received the Simons Investigator Award, one of the most prestigious in mathematics, for his novel ideas and techniques in geometry.

Kirtman uses complex Earth system models to investigate the predictability of the climate system on time scales from days to decades and to study the influence of tropical variability on mid-latitude predictability. “For many [researchers], scholarly leadership in one realm would be enough,” Roni Avissar, dean of the Rosenstiel School, wrote in a letter to Provost Duerk nominating Kirtman for the award. “Yet in addition to developing state-of-the-art models for forecasting and understanding predictability, Ben also contributes to the fundamental understanding of coupled air-sea interactions and their effect on climate and climate change across a broad spectrum of topics.”

Kirtman, for example, has studied the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, including its links to American rainfall and decadal climate variability; the relationship between the Indian monsoon and sea surface temperature; tropical cyclone frequency and their tracks; the predictability of wave height; sea level rise and flooding hazards; and the impact of ocean eddies and western boundary currents on mean climate and climate variability.

The Provost’s Funding Awards recognize productivity in research, as evidenced by sustained, peer-reviewed, extramural funding. This year’s recipients are: Michael Antoni, of the Department of Psychology, and Mary Lindemann, of the Department of History, both from the College of Arts and Sciences; and Yongtao Guan, of the Department of Management Science in the Miami Business School.

The Provost’s Research Awards are designed to foster excellence in research and creative scholarship as well as provide support for salary and direct research costs. The awards are classified into three categories based on five disciplines: the Max Orovitz Research Awards in the Arts and Humanities, the James W. McLamore Research Awards in Business and Social Sciences, and the Research Awards in Natural Sciences and Engineering. View a list of this year’s awardees.