July 6, 2016
The UNC School of Medicine selected Karen Mohlke, PhD, professor of genetics, and Victor Garcia-Martinez, PhD, professor of medicine and member of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, as Smithies Investigators, an annual award to honor senior faculty members who have made significant research contributions and achieved international recognition for their work. Both are members of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The award was established in honor of the research achievements of UNC Nobel Prize Winner Oliver Smithies, DPhil, the Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. The Smithies Investigators receive $75,000 for research over a five-year term, become members of the Oliver Smithies Society, and will present highlights of their research accomplishments at a special seminar in the fall.
Mohlke is a human geneticist internationally renowned for her work investigating the complex genetics underlying the susceptibility to common health conditions such as type-2 diabetes and obesity, as well as variability in cholesterol levels, blood pressure, body size, weight gain, and early growth. Since establishing her lab in 2004, Mohlke has been an integral investigator in large international groups of researchers analyzing genetic variations throughout the whole genomes of hundreds of thousands of individuals to better understand the complex genetics of human disease.
In addition to examining the primary effects of genes, her lab has pioneered ways to dissect the functional relevance of potential genetic variants and their downstream effects in cells, as well as the interaction of genes and environmental risk factors in the development of diseases.
Mohlke has been recognized through numerous awards, including the Pew Scholar and Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awards and the Ruth and Phillip Hettlemen Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement. She was selected as a fellow of the National Academy of Science Kavli Frontiers in Science Program and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is one of a handful of faculty at UNC identified by Reuters as one of the most frequently cited researchers in 2014 and 2015. Mohlke is also acknowledged for her thoughtful mentorship of students and postdoctoral fellows, and is the co-director of the newly established Training Program in Genetic Epidemiology of Heart, Lung, and Blood Diseases.
Garcia-Martinez, who holds a joint appointment in the department of microbiology and immunology, was recruited to UNC in 2010. As a world-renowned researcher in the fields of HIV and cancer, he is most recognized for his transformative research development – humanized mouse models, which have been widely used to address fundamental questions in HIV and cancer biology. Referred to as “BLT” (Bone Marrow-Liver-Thymus) humanized mice, they are the first small animal model to recreate the biology of the human HIV infection. These animals are the premier validated mouse model to study HIV infection, transmission, and therapy. His lab has used the model to answer fundamental questions about the virus with important health implications.
Garcia-Martinez has been a key leader for collaborative infectious disease research at UNC, where he has played an integral role in the Collaborative of AIDS Investigators for a Cure, a $50-million NIH grant. He has also been instrumental in the development of the novel UNC-GSK joint venture, Qura Therapeutics/HIV Cure center.
As a minority scientist, he serves as a role model and has worked to expand research opportunities and outreach for Hispanic and other minority scientists at UNC and beyond.
Oliver Smithies, a faculty member at UNC for more than 25 years, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007. He co-discovered a technique he called “gene-targeting,” which allows scientists to study genetic mutations by knocking out specific genes in mice. The method became ubiquitous in basic research labs and opened up a new kind of scientific inquiry into many different diseases.
Each year, Smithies hosts the annual Oliver Smithies Nobel Symposium at the UNC School of Medicine.