Three DoM Physician Scientists Honored by The American Society for Clinical Investigation

Join us in congratulating UCLA Department of Medicine Physician Scientists Quen J. Cheng, MD, PhDElizabeth R. Volkmann, MD, MS, and Ching Zhu, MD, PhD who were selected as American Society for Clinical Investigation’s 2024 Early-Career Awardees. Dr. Cheng and Dr. Volkmann -- were selected to receive the Young Physician-Scientist Award (YPSA), which recognizes physician-scientists who are early in their first faculty appointment and have made notable achievements in their research. Advanced Specialty Fellow Dr. Ching Zhu was selected to receive the Emerging Generation Award (E-Gen Award), which recognizes post-MD, pre-faculty appointment physician-scientists who are meaningfully engaged in immersive research.

The American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI) convenes annually to consider nominations for several prestigious physician-scientist career awards. Founded in 1908, The ASCI is a nonprofit focused on supporting the scientific efforts, educational needs, and clinical aspirations of physician-scientists to improve the health of all people. As one of the oldest medical honor societies in the US, and one of the few organizations focused on the unique role of physician-scientists across research, clinical practice, and education, receiving an ASCI award is a significant milestone in the career of a physician scientist.

While even one awardee would be a significant achievement, three awardees from our department is especially impressive given that there were only 80 nominees chosen total nationally. Please join us in learning about and celebrating these exceptional awardees.

Young Physician-Scientist Awards (YPSA)

Elizabeth R. Volkmann, MD, MS

Dr. Elizabeth Volkmann is an associate professor in the UCLA Division of Rheumatology, the founder and co-director of the UCLA Connective Tissue Disease-Related Interstitial Lung Disease (CTD-ILD) Program, and the director of the UCLA Scleroderma Program. She has been a Bruin since her medical training at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, where completed her internal medicine residency and subspecialty fellowship in rheumatology. As a world-renowned expert in systemic sclerosis and connective tissue disease-related interstitial lung disease, Dr. Volkmann is fiercely committed to the whole health of her patients and pushing care discovery forward.

To that end, Dr. Volkmann connects clinical work to bench research through her oversight of clinical trials aimed at testing scleroderma therapies and identifying biomarkers to predict how patients might respond to therapies. Her goal is to further integrate precision medicine into scleroderma treatment so that patients can get more effective treatments sooner. The field, in no small part due to her efforts, has already moved closer towards this goal since Dr. Volkmann completed her medical training.

"When we started out in this research," Dr. Volkmann shared, "we had very little to offer patients with systemic sclerosis in terms of treatment. Now we have two FDA-approved therapies for systemic sclerosis and six more promising treatment studies ongoing at UCLA. With this comes the possibility of making more informed decisions about what type of therapy works best for each patient."

Dr. Volkmann has also led the way in developing collaboration and education programs for scleroderma experts. The CTD-ILD Program is a multidisciplinary team that meets weekly to review cases and develop individualized care plans. "Systemic diseases affect the whole body. We created this group to improve communication between all doctors involved in a patient's care," Dr. Volkmann explains. She also founded "Women in Scleroderma," a group for women care providers and scientists working on scleroderma. Dr. Volkmann explained that given that most scleroderma patients are women, and that rheumatology has historically been male dominated, it's important to promote the training and collaboration of women physicians in this field. The group has close to 200 members globally that participate in training and mentorship. Dr. Volkmann shared that she takes mentorship seriously knowing how much it can really influence someone as a trainee, having been inspired to pursue rheumatology by her first research mentor, Dr. Bevra Hahn, who nominated her for this award.

Above all, Dr. Volkmann, who has wanted to be a doctor since the age of 4, says she is humbled and honored to receive this award; and wants to share this credit with the UCLA STAR Program, pulmonology division, and with her patients.

My patients inspire all of the work that I do. Every question I come up with stems from something I've observed in the clinic and I'm working every day to find ways to make the lives of my patients better.”

Quen J. Cheng, MD, PhD

Dr. Cheng is an assistant professor in the UCLA Division of Infectious Diseases and co-director of the UCLA STAR Physician Scientist Training Program. On being selected as a YPSA awardee by ASCI, Dr. Cheng shared the following,

"I am honored to receive the YPSA. I am grateful for the numerous mentors who have poured into me over the years and continue to be my cheerleaders. I am indebted to the training I’ve received at UCLA, and it is an honor to be recognized by the broader physician scientist community."

Below is more information about Dr. Cheng, as shared here by the ASCI:

“[Dr. Cheng] obtained his bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in biochemistry. Upon graduation, he worked as a research assistant at Lawrence Berkeley laboratory for three years. During that time, his passion for science was kindled by a wonderful post-doctoral mentor, and he was fortunate to co-author a paper in Cell. Dr. Cheng went on to obtain his MD from UC San Diego, during which time his interest in research continued to grow. He was awarded an NIH training grant and the Thomas E. Carew prize for the research he conducted in medical school.

Dr. Cheng chose to do his post-graduate training at UCLA largely for the unparalleled support of their physician-scientist program. As part of his fellowship training, he obtained a PhD under the mentorship of Alexander Hoffmann, PhD, studying signaling, epigenomics, and gene regulation in macrophages. His PhD work led to three first or last-author papers including one in Science. He was given the UCLA Department of Medicine’s Research Innovator award twice and invited to be a speaker at an NIH/NIAID symposium in 2019. 

Upon finishing the PhD program in 2020, Dr. Cheng joined the faculty at UCLA. He continues to collaborate closely with Dr. Hoffmann while launching new research directions studying the mechanisms of “trained immunity” – how prior infections or cytokine exposures alter macrophage function. He was awarded an NIH K08 on this topic in 2022, as well as an R21 to study the effect of HIV on trained immunity. He is also a co-investigator on a newly awarded U19.”

Emerging-Generation Award

Ching Zhu, MD, PhD

Dr. Ching Zhu is currently a clinical cardiac electrophysiology fellow at UCLA, following the completion of her general cardiology fellowship and PhD in molecular and cellular physiology in the UCLA STAR Program. Through the fellowship, Dr. Zhu is completing her advanced training as an electrophysiologist to treat patients with complex arrhythmias, particularly through catheter ablation procedures of the heart. One example of Dr. Zhu's unique clinical work is the treatment of atrial fibrillation (a fast and irregular heart beat) with a catheter ablation, now a preferred option to open heart surgery -- the only solution previously available.

Dr. Zhu’s bench research builds off of her clinical expertise and involves looking at the nerves within the heart to determine how they control the electrical function of the heart -- and specifically testing ways to modulate the nerve function of the heart in a way that alleviates arrhythmias. For Dr. Zhu, there was never a question of whether she would pursue research in addition to medicine. In fact, her research career began at the age of 14, when she began studying cardiac gap junction biology in Dr. Robert Gourdie's lab at the Medical University of South Carolina. She published her first peer-reviewed paper as lead author before her high school graduation.

This early mentorship was crucial to propelling her forward. Dr. Gourdie and Dr. Zhu are still close, and Dr. Zhu has garnered additional mentors along the way, including UCLA's Kalyanam Shivkumar, MD, PhD, in whose lab Dr. Zhu obtained her PhD, and who nominated her for this award.

Upon receiving the award, Dr. Zhu shared the following,

 "It's a huge honor to be recognized [by ASCI] because this is a society of established physician scientists that I look up to. To enter that network is very humbling and is also practically helpful because this award grants access to educational programs specifically for physician scientists."

Only 6% of cardiac electrophysiologists are women. Dr. Zhu is part of that 6% as one of the less than 200 female electrophysiologists not just nationally, but globally. "We are a rare subset of a rare subset," she shares. She added that this award is especially meaningful to her given the rarity not just of her area of work, but of the rarity of women in her area of work.

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