Year 3. March 25. The Power of Mentorship.

A core tenet of our department’s strategic plan is a commitment to mentoring the next generation of leaders in medicine. This week, I write to share some tangible examples of mentorship in action.

DGSOM Student Victoria Yuan Awarded Sarnoff Foundation Research Fellowship

For the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of serving as a member of the scientific committee or board of directors of the Sarnoff Cardiovascular Research Foundation.

The foundation’s mission is to develop medical students throughout their careers into the next generation of leaders in cardiovascular innovation, research, and medicine by providing mentored research experiences and lifelong involvement in a safe and supportive community committed to diversity and inclusion. Each year, medical students from across the country apply for one of these competitive fellowships, but there has not been a track record of DGSOM students seeking out this opportunity. Thus, I was very pleased when Victoria Yuan (a second-year medical student at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA) approached me to learn more about the Sarnoff and to explore the best approach to apply for this opportunity to spend a year performing mentored research in a laboratory anywhere in the country.

I was very pleased to learn that Victoria is a recipient of a Sarnoff Foundation Research Fellowship. This competitive and prestigious fellowship, funds one year of independent, intensive cardiovascular research. As a Sarnoff Fellow, Victoria plans to expand her interest in analyzing cardiac images with artificial intelligence (AI) to facilitate early diagnosis of chemotherapy-induced cardiotoxicity and inform treatment plans for patients undergoing breast cancer therapy. Her interest in research in cardiovascular imaging and genetics stems from mentorship by Dr. David Ouyang at Cedars-Sinai.

Prior to medical school, Victoria graduated from Stanford’s Class of 2020, majoring in biomedical computation with honors. Her interest in computational biology then led her to intern at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard and later, to move to Milan, Italy as a Fulbright scholar in biomedical engineering. During her gap years, Victoria also mentored high school students in research methods while co-managing a free clinic. Ultimately, Victoria aspires to become a physician-scientist who develops AI models to improve cardiovascular diagnostics while advocating for diversity in STEM education.

As she prepares to embark on the Sarnoff fellowship, Victoria notes: “ I am deeply grateful for my mentors, who have encouraged me to ask questions about biomedical mechanisms and tackle them with lines of code”. Victoria shared that she is especially grateful for Dr. Alison Marsden, her undergraduate thesis advisor who taught her the foundations of engineering and scientific inquiry; Dr. David Ouyang, her current PI who expanded her interest in AI and medicine; and Dr. E. Dale Abel, who encouraged her to apply for the Sarnoff and grow as physician-scientist. Congratulations Victoria!

Postdoctoral Scholar Wenxin Song, PhD Awarded 2024 Popjak Scholar Award

Wenxin Song, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the UCLA Division of Cardiology, is leading groundbreaking research into plasma triglyceride metabolism that will help develop new therapies for metabolic diseases. Understanding plasma triglyceride metabolism is crucial for addressing cardiovascular health risks, as inefficient fat metabolism can lead to the accumulation of harmful lipoproteins, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.

Her research, under the guidance of Stephen G. Young, MD, Loren G. Fong, PhD, and Anne P. Beigneux, PharmD, PhD, has earned her the 2024 Popjak Scholar Award from the UCLA Atherosclerosis Research Unit (ARU).

“It is a tremendous privilege for me to be the recipient of the Popjak Scholar Award. It was wonderful to present my research to the ARU committee members and fellow researchers in the UCLA Department of Medicine (DoM). This event was important for the exchange of ideas and for developing potential collaborations,” states Dr. Song

Throughout her career in research, Dr. Song was passionate about basic science, particularly biology and biochemistry and had a goal of contributing to the fields of biochemistry and metabolism. She believed that understanding metabolism would be helpful in designing strategies to treat human diseases.

In the early years of her UCLA research career, Dr. Song focused on GPIHBP1, an endothelial cell protein required for transporting lipoprotein lipase (LPL) to the capillary lumen. She discovered that a unique region of GPIHBP1, the acidic domain, disrupts persistent electrostatic interactions between LPL and the basement membrane allowing LPL to move to the capillary lumen. In the absence of the acidic domain, LPL is trapped on the outside of capillaries and never reaches the capillary lumen. For years, the LPL that GPIHBP1 transports into capillaries was assumed to remain attached to GPIHBP1, but Dr. Song showed that this was not the case.  Dr. Song discovered that some of the LPL detaches from GPIHBP1 and enters a gelatinous layer (the glycocalyx) on the luminal surface of capillaries. The “glycocalyx LPL” is active in breaking down fats in the bloodstream and providing nutrients to vital tissues.

Most recently, Dr. Song found that LPL is active in the choroid plexus within the central nervous system. She has proposed that LPL in the choroid plexus plays an accessory role in delivering lipid nutrients to the central nervous system. 

Dr. Song has pointed out that all of her discoveries in the field of lipid metabolism depended on advanced imaging.

Dr. Song also emphasized the clinical importance of understanding LPL and plasma lipid metabolism. Inefficient fat metabolism can lead to the accumulation of harmful lipoproteins and increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Dr. Song is the 25th recipient of the Popjack Scholar Award which supports research that will ultimately transform how we treat cardiometabolic diseases.

“I am grateful to my supervisors Stephen Young, Loren Fong, and Anne Beigneux, and to my scientific colleagues. Over the past few years, the opportunity to develop my scientific abilities and to make discoveries have been very, very gratifying,” states Dr. Song.

Congratulations Wenxin on this achievement. We celebrate your contributions to the field of medicine and the invaluable contributions of your mentors! 

George Agak, PhD Awarded NIH (NIAMS) Diversity Supplement Grant in Support of Aspiring Biostatistician Gregory Brewer

The groundbreaking research of Dr. George Agak on T cell mediated immune responses promises to revolutionize our understanding of adaptive immunity in the skin. This promising work will fuel innovative investigations into host defense mechanisms in acne vulgaris, paving the way for novel breakthroughs. We were pleased to learn that his research will be funded by an NIH (NIAMS) Diversity Supplement Grant that will support the education and training of aspiring biostatistician Gregory Brewer.

Gregory’s journey demonstrates an unwavering resolve to achieve one’s goals. Despite coming from a community with limited access to higher education and personal hardship, Gregory pursued his passion for science against the odds. He earned his undergraduate degree in biomedical science at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Thanks to the NIH Diversity Supplement Grant, he is set to further his education in bioinformatics at UCLA. Gregory’s goal is to merge his proficiency in computer programming and data management with his experience in investigative dermatology. He plans to integrate these skills to develop clinical databases for computational analysis. His primary objective is to complete his master’s in bioinformatics while gaining practical experience in data management and laboratory research. Dr. Agak adds:

Upon reflection, I‘m confident that drafting this grant was the right thing to do. It emphasizes the principle that everyone deserves an equal shot at success, irrespective of their background.”

Gregory's inclusion in Dr. Agak's lab exemplifies the essence of diversity and collaborative effort in scientific research. As he joins Dr. Agak’s research program, Gregory's journey showcases the power and crucial role of mentorship in propelling underrepresented voices to the forefront of scientific innovation.

Join me in celebrating Dr. Agak's achievement and extend our warmest wishes to Gregory Brewer as he embarks on this educational journey!

From Syria to UCLA: Dr. Samer Alkassis Journey of Resilience and Mentorship

Dr. Samer Alkassis’ journey from Damascus, Syria to UCLA, is a testament to resilience, determination, and the power of mentorship. Dr. Alkassis is a second-year hematology-oncology fellow at UCLA who studied medicine at the University of Damascus. His journey through medical school coincided with the onset of war and crisis in his homeland, presenting many challenges for aspiring physicians like himself who sought to pursue advanced training abroad. Despite the obstacles, which included the arduous process of securing a visa, he remained committed to pursuing his dream of becoming an internal medicine physician.

Amidst the war, Dr. Alkassis received his visa in October 2016. Upon arriving in the US, he encountered a pivotal moment that would change the course of his life. Through a chance email exchange, he connected with his future mentor Dr. John A. Glaspy, in the division of hematology and oncology, whose guidance and support proved instrumental in shaping his future.

“I sent the email to Dr. Glaspy thinking there was no way he was going to respond to me. I was probably one of hundreds of emails that faculty receive from students,” stated Dr. Alkassis, “I was shocked that he replied the next morning inviting me to meet with him after I shared with him my personal story about coming to the US from Syria with the goal of becoming a physician.”

Dr. Glaspy's unwavering belief in Dr. Alkassis' potential opened doors to opportunities in research and clinical practice, laying the foundation for his remarkable journey in the field of hematology-oncology. Under mentorship in Dr. Glaspy’s lab, Dr. Alkassis delved into the field, discovering a passion for cutting-edge therapies and patient care. "I was fascinated by the mechanism of action of immunotherapy," he explains, highlighting his interest in innovative cancer treatments.

After a few years of conducting lab research, Dr. Alkassis pursued his residency training in Detroit, Michigan. Throughout residency, Dr. Alkassis continued to excel, guided by Dr. Glaspy's wisdom and support.

"Dr. Glaspy has always provided guidance and resources that have helped me navigate my journey in medicine. He has always been the first person I call to share any good news about each step on this journey,” Dr. Alkassis says, emphasizing the profound impact of mentorship.

Now, as he navigates his hematology-oncology fellowship at UCLA along with his master’s degree in clinical research through the STAR program, Dr. Alkassis looks back on his journey with gratitude and humility.

"I never could have imagined how far I would come," he reflects, "but with perseverance and the support of mentors like Dr. Glaspy, anything is possible."

As Dr. Glaspy reflects on his experience as a mentor, he shares with us these wise words:

“None of us get through life without the help of others. Therefore, mustering a little empathy for the displaced or vulnerable is not difficult or heroic, it’s paying a debt we all carry to our own mentors and making an investment in justice.”

Lastly, I am pleased to share that Dr. Alkassis has been appointed chief fellow for his third year of fellowship. Dr. Alkassis' story reminds us that in the face of adversity, resilience and mentorship can pave the way to success.

UCLA Integrated Community Engaged, mobile health (mHealth), and Data Science to Enhance Clinical Trial Diversity and Cardiometabolic Health (iDIVERSE) Center and USC Alzheimer's Trial Recruitment Innovation Lab (ATRIL) Science of Diversity in Clinical Trials Semi-Annual Meeting

Diversity and inclusion in the sciences are proven components for driving innovation. Recognizing this, the UCLA Integrated Community Engaged, mHealth, and Data Science to Enhance Clinical Trial Diversity and Cardiometabolic Health (iDIVERSE) Center, in collaboration with the USC Alzheimer's Trial Recruitment Innovation Lab (ATRIL), is championing mentorship and diversity in science through innovative initiatives.

Clinical trials serve as the cornerstone for introducing new medicines and therapies, yet they often do not properly represent the diverse populations that make up our communities. The Science of Diversity in Clinical Trials addresses this disparity by exploring novel research strategies to engage underrepresented groups effectively. Led by DoM faculty members Tzung Hsiai, MD, PhD and Keith Norris, MD, PhD and faculty from USC, these initiatives are reshaping the landscape of clinical research.

Presenters at UCLA Integrated Community Engaged, mHealth, and iDIVERSE Center and USC ATRI Lab Science of Diversity in Clinical Trials Semi-Annual Meeting

The group recently hosted their semi-annual meeting on February 28-29th, 2024, which brought together leaders dedicated to fostering diversity and inclusion in clinical trials. With representatives from institutions including Johns Hopkins, UPenn, and Stanford, participants shared the latest advancements, encouraged collaboration, and advised the next generation of leaders in academia.

Central to the meeting's vision is the promotion of mentorship, particularly for underrepresented minority (URM) and women trainees and faculty. Through small group breakout sessions and larger discussions, attendees developed career plans and connections with senior leaders in the field. All pledged their commitment to continued support for diversity initiatives across communities.

Moreover, the iDIVERSE and ATRIL teams are spearheading transformative research projects targeting cardiometabolic health and Alzheimer's disease, respectively. From leveraging mHealth approaches to enhancing recruitment strategies, these endeavors underpin the program’s commitment to inclusivity and equity in scientific inquiry.

As we celebrate these milestones in mentorship and diversity, we recognize that true progress requires collective action. By fostering collaboration, nurturing talent, and embracing diversity, our DoM faculty are paving the way for a more inclusive and impactful scientific future.

Women’s History Month: Celebrating Women Leaders in the DoM

We continue our celebration of Women’s History Month by shining a spotlight on women in medicine who are leaders across our four mission pillars of research, education, patient care and community engagement. 

Katherine Kahn, MD and Arleen Brown, MD, PhD Recognized as UCLA Faculty Mentoring Honor Society Members

We are thrilled to extend our congratulations to Dr. Katherine L. Khan and Dr. Arleen Brown for being selected as members of the 2024 cohort of the UCLA Faculty Mentoring Honorary Society.

This prestigious recognition is a testament to their unwavering commitment to excellence in mentorship, as well as their profound dedication to the professional development of early and mid-career faculty at UCLA. Dr. Khan and Dr. Brown have demonstrated outstanding leadership and support, particularly in mentoring underrepresented faculty across various identities including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and disability.

Their selection into this esteemed society not only reflects their individual accomplishments but also highlights the significance of mentorship in fostering an inclusive and thriving academic community. Through their guidance and mentorship, Dr. Khan and Dr. Brown have undoubtedly made a lasting impact on the careers and lives of numerous leaders in medicine at UCLA and beyond.

2024 UCLA Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program Event

March is National Kidney Month! On Saturday, March 9, the UCLA Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program (KDSAP) chapter hosted a screening in collaboration with The Links Inc. at a Black K.A.R.E. community town hall event titled “Let’s Talk Kidney Care,” hosted at the historic Holman United Methodist Church.

After the pastor of the Holman Church led participants in group prayer and meditation, a panel with DoM faculty, local physicians, a kidney donor and transplant recipient shared valuable insight into their knowledge and experiences regarding kidney health.

DoM Nephrologist Dr. Susanne Nicholas, was one of the panelists and shared more about chronic kidney disease (CKD) risk factors and urged community members to be proactive by taking advantage of the screening opportunity offered at the event. After the panel, community members were offered lunch. They participated in the screening, and learned more about kidney-friendly cooking, exercise routines, and mental health.

In total, UCLA KDSAP was able to screen 21 participants in approximately two hours. Program leads measured body mass index, ambulatory blood pressure, blood glucose, HbA1c, and urinalysis measurements for urine albumin-to-creatinine ratio (UACR) at clinical stations to check for CKD risk factors, including obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and abnormal UACR. Afterwards participants were directed to advisors Dr. James Wilson and Dr. Susanne Nicholas, who reviewed their results and provided suggestions along with resources for follow-up care. Dr. Mohammad Kamgar was also in attendance to support the UCLA KDSAP.

Overall, this collaboration was successful because UCLA undergraduate students gained kidney health insights from various perspectives and how higher-risk community members could benefit from free CKD screening. The students look forward to similar events in the future as they expand the UCLA KDSAP chapter.

DoM EDI Women’s History Month Newsletter

Although Women’s History Month concludes in March, we celebrate the leadership and achievements of women in our department year-round. I am pleased to share with you that our DoM EDI Office has penned a heartfelt edition celebrating our women leaders in their latest newsletter. It is a must-read and I encourage you to view it HERE.



One of the joys of mentorship is celebrating the achievements of your mentees and their trainees. This picture is of me and one my mentees Dr. AJ Hinton, assistant professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt University (blue hat), and two of his mentees Sydney Jamison and Claude Albritton II, at a recent career development workshop, under the auspices of the Endocrine Society (FLARE Program), which I hosted in Nashville a couple weekends ago.

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