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4.16.2013

Drs. Margaret Fischl and Richard Myers Receive Faculty Senate Awards

The first healthy patients with illnesses such as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma started showing up at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center in the early 1980s. Their immune systems had become compromised, leaving them open to a host of opportunistic infections.

One of the physicians caring for them was Margaret Fischl, M.D., a young internist who was just starting her career as a faculty member at the Miller School, and last week became one of two Miller School faculty recognized by the Faculty Senate for their achievements.

“In the beginning, we didn’t know what was causing [the infections],” recalled Fischl, professor of medicine, Director of the Miami AIDS Clinical Research Unit and Co-Director of the Miami Center for AIDS Research, who received the Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award for her lifelong pursuit to understand, treat and search for a cure for AIDS. “So we were treating patients based on their complications and giving them the best possible care that we could.”

The Miller School’s Richard S. Myers, Ph.D., lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, received the Outstanding Teaching Award, the first lecturer so honored.

Also honored was Steven G. Ullmann, Ph.D., professor of management and economics and Director of Programs in Health Sector Management and Policy at the School of Business Administration, who received the McLamore Outstanding Service Award. William D. Walker, who is stepping down as Dean of University of Miami Libraries at the end of the spring semester, was a special Senate awardee.

By the time AIDS and the HIV virus that causes it were identified, Fischl was already on the front lines of the war against the disease, treating patients and leading a groundbreaking clinical trial of a drug that would be a forerunner to highly effective combination-dosing strategies that have turned the once-lethal illness into a manageable one.

Before an audience of educators, researchers, and friends in Storer Auditorium, she recalled those early years of struggling to find the answer to why some healthy patients were getting infections typically seen only in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. In Miami, she and her colleagues were seeing the full spectrum of HIV transmission – mothers who passed the disease on to their unborn children, hemophiliacs, men who had sex with men, heterosexuals, adolescents, and IV drug users.

“The affected population was disenfranchised,” Fischl said. “We couldn’t work fast enough to find treatments. When we found treatments, they had side effects. They worked for a short period of time and then stopped working. Eventually, we realized that we weren’t totally suppressing the virus.”

When she informed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Miami was experiencing the same outbreaks being reported by doctors in New York and California, officials told her that she was wrong. But there was no doubt in her mind “because we were seeing all the opportunistic infections that everyone else was seeing,” she said.

As the stigma surrounding the disease grew, she collaborated on a household study with Gwendolyn B. Scott, M.D., professor of pediatrics and Director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease and Immunology, showing that the disease could not be casually transmitted.

Then came the first breakthrough in AIDS therapy: Zidovudine or AZT, which belongs to a class of drugs known as reverse transcriptase inhibitors. In a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial, Fischl and her colleagues were among the first to demonstrate the drug’s effectiveness in reducing HIV viral loads in AIDS patients. AZT, the trial showed, also helped increase the number of CD4 cells—a type of white blood cell that fights infection.

But the virus developed a resistance to the drug, and CD4-cell counts in patients declined again. Fischl and her team needed a new strategy. They decided to combine AZT with another antiretroviral drug in the same class, a decision that was criticized by the National Institutes of Health. It proved successful, though; Fischl’s patients again experienced a decrease in viral load and a rise in their CD4-cell counts.

Eventually, they incorporated another class of drugs — protease inhibitors — into treatment, creating powerful triple-drug therapies that totally suppressed the virus.

She never took death threats seriously, and never wavered in her support of AIDS sufferers. She and her colleagues reached out to the movie industry, urging stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren to help fight the stigma and discrimination against people living with the disease.

Still, major roadblocks remain—chief among them, knocking out the virus’s genetic coding that manages to hide in quiescent CD4 cells of HIV-positive patients even after years of antiretroviral treatments have suppressed the disease.

“To actually get rid of the virus is going to require, as one of my patients said, Stars Wars-type medicine,” Fischl said. “It is, we know now, very possible.”

A therapeutic vaccine is one option for a cure. As a co-director of the NIH-funded Miami Center for AIDS Research, Fischl is now concentrating her research in that area.

“I’m not even afraid to say the word cure because I think it’s now feasible and possible,” she said. “I tell my patients, I tell my staff, ‘Never, never say never.’ ”

Richard S. Myers
Outstanding Teaching Award Winner

Richard Myers’s teaching style has been described as unorthodox. Concerned that the large classroom sizes typical of some introductory courses might be hampering students’ ability to absorb course material, Myers decided to employ a novel approach in his biochemistry classes, dropping “our geniuses into the deep end of the pool,” he says, and having them do authentic research. Students have consistently praised Myers’s demanding method of teaching. He has been selected twice as Outstanding Student Mentor.

The first lecturer ever to win the Outstanding Teaching Award, Myers was nominated for the honor by Walter A. Scott, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, who passed away just days before the award announcement. In his nomination letter, Scott described Myers as a “truly intuitive and enthusiastic teacher who cares about the students he teaches and has a gift for communicating complex concepts as well as the excitement of exploring molecular biology.”
Myers has even found time to go out into the community to teach and mentor high school students. At the Senate awards ceremony, he urged other faculty members to help students develop “not simply by giving them a list of things to memorize, but rather allow them to experience some sort of authentic aspect of our lives, our passions, our research, and be there to give them critical feedback and support.”

Steven G. Ullmann
McLamore Outstanding Service Award Winner

Steven G. Ullmann, this year’s James W. McLamore Outstanding Service Award winner, grew up in a family in which service was not only important but expected.

“My 85-year-old mother and my 90-year-old father, to this day, still do volunteer work,” Ullmann said in a statement read by his wife Rhonwyn, who accepted the McLamore Award in his honor. An accreditation site visit at another institution prevented him from attending the ceremony.

Established in 1987 and named after the co-founder of Burger King and former chair of the UM Board of Trustees, the award honors a member of the University community who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in service to the institution.

Ullmann joined the UM faculty in 1979. He currently holds a joint appointment, serving as a professor in the business school’s Departments of Management and Economics as well as in the Miller School’s Departments of Family Medicine and Community Health and Epidemiology and Public Health.

He spent eight years as one of the first associate masters of the University’s residential college system, and then became head master of Mahoney Residential College. In these roles, Ullmann organized numerous programs to help integrate undergraduate students into campus life, assuming the role of mentor, counselor, and parental figure to countless students.

“It’s not what he’s done so much as how he’s done it,” said Eugene W. Anderson, dean of the School of Business Administration. “Steve is one of those rare people whose every word and action promotes just the kind of civility, collaboration, and mutual respect that are so fundamental to the success of an academic community like this.”

Ullmann currently serves as a member of the advisory board of UImprove, a project designed to launch collaborations among schools. He has also held many significant administrative positions, including Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and University Administration and Dean of the Graduate School.

Outside the University, he has helped provide access to health care to the less fortunate.

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