June 25, 2021

Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

The passing of senior postdoctoral fellow Dr. Ellen E. Gillis

Some days bring unspeakable tragedy, and Wednesday tragedy struck here with the untimely death of our Dr. Ellen E. Gillis, senior postdoctoral fellow. Dr. Gillis, who was completing her postdoctoral studies with Dr. Jennifer Sullivan in our Department of Physiology, was working when she died of apparent natural causes. When I saw the love her colleagues had for her I was heartbroken. The loss of such a young life and so much potential is unspeakable. She was 32, and poised to fly in her own independent research program. Her work focused on the ravages of hypertension, with a particular interest in the impact on women, on their kidneys and in pregnancy with too common preeclampsia, which can harm mother and baby alike. While still a predoctoral student at the University of Mississippi, she set her sights on a good model to study preeclampsia in the face of the clinical reality that many young women, who had experienced a significant kidney injury from which — by any standard measures — they have recovered, have higher rates of preeclampsia and low birthweight babies. Early this year, she was corresponding author of a major paper announcing that model. She had already received two American Heart Association grants and was honored with a Hypertension Early Career Award from the AHA. Last year she received a very competitive K99 Pathway to Independence Award from the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to support her goal of that model. Dr. Sullivan shares that Dr. Gillis was a productive, inspired scientist and a fiercely loyal friend, a forthright individual who would tell you exactly what she thought and then be there for whatever you need. One of her many kind acts included baking birthday cakes for the many people she cared about here. We talked just last week about some of the other smiling, productive individuals in our Department of Physiology, and while Wednesday changed that for a while, it is a great comfort to know that Dr. Gillis worked and learned and taught among such a great group of people, and to remember how fortunate we were to have her with us. She will be missed, and my thoughts are with her mother and the many other people who care for her. 

Dr. Rick McIndoe to lead new federally funded research initiative

When I think about science and scientists, I think about innovation and drive because like our Dr. Gillis, we are pursuing knowledge that matters to people’s lives, which is exciting and meaningful. But there also is a pragmatic, methodical path we must follow to ensure that the drive will get us somewhere and we must have funding to get there. The funding part can be tough, particularly for young scientists with great ideas but not a lot of data yet to back them up. That is one of the things I like about this national approach, led by our Dr. Rick McIndoe, which ensures the practical side, but also favors innovation and the success of bright, early scientists. Dr. McIndoe, co-director of our Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine, is leading a $6.2 million initiative called Innovative Science Accelerator, or ISAC. It’s a new initiative of the Division of Kidney, Urologic and Hematologic Diseases at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. ISAC will award one-year, $100,000 grants to scientists with the goal that the support will enable them to pursue “high risk, high reward” novel ideas in diseases of the kidneys; the urinary tract in both sexes as well as the male reproductive organs; and the blood and bone marrow. The goal is to give scientists the time and support needed to get the data needed to successfully pursue a larger, more traditional NIH grant like the standard RO1. Like more traditional NIH grant processes there will be established experts in these respective fields from across the country involved, and there will be an annual scientific meeting, the first one likely next Spring, to bring these experts and new awardees together. I am happy to share that some of our own experts in these areas are members of Dr. McIndoe’s ISAC Working Group, and are helping advise him on many matters. They include longtime hypertension investigator Dr. Dave Mattson, chair of our Department of Physiology; our Dr. Sullivan, pharmacologist and physiologist in the Physiology Department who is also interim dean of The Graduate School here and an expert in the areas that Dr. Gillis also loved and pursued; and Dr. Betty Pace, pediatric hematologist and physician- scientist in the MCG Department of Pediatrics, a sickle cell investigator who leads a federally funded national initiative to inspire future investigators. 

The $6.2 million initiative will spur “high risk, high reward” research

Dr. McIndoe, a bioinformatics expert who came to us in 2002 from the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he also earned his PhD, says it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to lead this neat, new endeavor. And like good science, there is good evidence he will rock at it. He already has managed two other innovative NIH funding approaches and clearly hits the ground running with ISAC with the infrastructure already in place to make it successful as well. For two decades Dr. McIndoe has led the Coordinating and Bioinformatics Unit for the Diabetic Complications Consortium to fund shorter-term laboratory and human studies to better understand the complications of diabetes, like heart and kidney disease and vision problems. The consortium has its roots as the Animal Models of Diabetes Complications, which designed and shared good mouse models. Fifteen years ago he began providing similar services for the Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Centers, which make the specialized, expensive mouse-testing capabilities of a select number of universities available and affordable to researchers nationwide. These also innovative-at-the-time programs are scheduled to sunset next year but have been very successful in their strategies to gain new, published insight into disease and in helping investigators secure additional funding. Great job already Dr. McIndoe and congratulations yet again.

Dr. Natasha Savage named interim associate dean for GME

It feels like just a minute ago that I was sharing with you that Dr. Michael Hocker was our new senior associate dean and designated institutional official, or DIO, for graduate medical education and in fact, it was almost a year ago to this day. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine decided he was a great leader as well and last month announced they had selected Dr. Hocker as their new dean. He is one of the best natural leaders I have ever worked with, and while we hate to lose Dr. Hocker, we wish him the best in his next role. The good news is that Dr. Natasha Savage, a 2007 MCG graduate who also completed her residency in anatomic and clinical pathology with us, including serving as chief resident, has agreed to serve as our interim senior associate dean for GME and DIO. Dr. Savage, also completed a hematopathology fellowship at Stanford after her residency, came back to us as an assistant professor in 2012, was named associate director of the pathology residency program three years later, director of the residency program in 2017 and vice chair of academic affairs for the department last year. She is also chief of staff elect for our hospital, a commissioner for Georgia for the College of American Pathologists and medical director for an array of laboratories here including hematology, bone marrow, flow cytometry and family medicine. Dr. Savage is an often-honored educator of our medical students and residents who is a natural, enthusiastic fit for this important role and we thank her for tremendous service to educating the next generation. A mea culpa on my part: Dr. Savage grew up in Hephzibah and graduated from A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School. I am embarrassed because when I was talking about her at the Faculty Senate meeting last week, I was ready to award a soft drink to anyone who could name her high school. I thought it was Hephzibah High School so if anyone yelled out AR Johnson, come claim your prize. 

Dr. Christy Ledford named Curtis G. Hames, MD, Distinguished Chair in Family Medicine

Speaking of a natural fit, late last summer we were also announcing the appointment of Dr. Dean Seehusen as chair of the Department of Family Medicine. Like many of you, this was another package deal because he also had been recently named deputy editor of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine and would be bringing the journal’s production to MCG. Now we are pleased to share that it’s here and so is Dr. Christy J.W. Ledford, the journal’s associate editor. Dr. Ledford actually came to us in January from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda where she was research director in the Department of Family Medicine. Now she is research director for our Family Medicine Department where she is bringing a concerted effort to expand primary care research. It also is my pleasure to share that in the fine tradition of research that matters to people’s lives, she has been named the Curtis G. Hames, MD, Distinguished Chair in Family Medicine. This great chair honors the 1944 MCG graduate and pioneer Dr. Hames, a Claxton, Georgia, family medicine physician who received some of the first NIH funding to study cardiovascular disease in ethnically diverse communities. His Evans County Heart Study, which was funded for nearly 40 years, looked at how the environment and genetics, cofactors in every aspect of our health, affect the development of heart disease in Blacks and whites. This was and is hugely important work in the disease that kills most Georgians and Americans. In 1981, the late Gerald Achenbach who was then president and chair of Piggly Wiggly Southern Foundation, Inc., named an endowed chair and lectureship to honor Dr. Hames’ pioneering work. One of the many things I love about MCG, is great traditions like this in which the great work of one helps inspire and enable the great work of others. Congratulations Dr. Ledford. We look forward to the progress you will help inspire.

Dr. Joe Bailey and Dr. Norman Pursley pass

Finally today, we note the passing of two distinctive MCG icons: Dr. Joseph P. Bailey Jr. and Dr. Norman B. Pursley Sr.  Dr. Bailey was a native Augustan, a graduate of Richmond Academy and what used to be called the Junior College of Augusta and Mercer University. He was a 1955 MCG graduate who completed his residency with us and joined the faculty in 1961 where he would establish our Section of Rheumatology and become its first chief, a job he kept until his retirement in 2000. He was named associate dean for clinical sciences in 1972 and Charbonnier Professor of Medicine in 1984, and later held emeritus titles honoring both those posts. He would serve terms as chief of staff of our hospital and as interim chair of the Department of Medicine. The honored educator has been described by his peers as a “physician’s physician,” a great diagnostician and a principled individual. The American Medical Association honored Dr. Bailey in 2015 with the Distinguished Service Award for meritorious service in the science and art of medicine. He wore a classic bowtie throughout his long tenure and carried a great passion for medicine and his medical school. He always stopped by my office to encourage me and I will miss that and him. Dr. Pursley was a native of Griffin, Georgia who graduated from our medical school in 1948, opened a general practice in Hiawassee, and then began a long, distinguished career that would include serving as superintendent of Gracewood State School and Hospital. He was an advocate for those with intellectual disabilities, including serving on the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation, and was an early proponent of community services that targeted the needs of the individual. He was a consultant and advisor on a national effort that ultimately established the Special Olympics and appointed by President Kennedy to help develop a national plan to combat mental retardation. He brought our medical students to Gracewood to give them insight into caring for individuals with intellectual disabilities and served as president of the Georgia Public Health Association and the National Association of Superintendents of Public Residential Facilities for the Mentally Retarded. He was a kind and accomplished man. My thoughts are with the families and countless friends of these stalwarts of medicine and of MCG.

Please get vaccinated so we can put this pandemic behind us.

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