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2023 President’s Scholar Awards: Four receive UTHealth Houston’s most distinguished awards

Recipients of the 2023 President's Scholar Awards honored at a ceremony. (Photo by Jacob Power Photography)
Recipients of the 2023 President's Scholar Awards are honored at a ceremony held Feb. 13. Pictured: Igor D. Gregoric, MD, MBA; Mya C. Schiess, MD; Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS; Harold Henson, PhD, RDH. (Photo by Jacob Power Photography)

Three faculty members who have demonstrated longstanding excellence in areas of research, teaching, and clinical care, and a fourth recognized for overall exemplary dedication and service, received top honors from UTHealth Houston President Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, MD, Alkek-Williams Distinguished Chair, during a ceremony on Tuesday, Feb. 13.

Each award, given to deserving individuals nominated by their peers, carries with it the honorary title of President’s Scholar and a cash prize.

Recipients of the 2023 President’s Scholar Awards:

  • Excellence in Research: Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS
  • Excellence in Teaching: Harold Henson, PhD, RDH
  • Excellence in Clinical Service: Mya C. Schiess, MD

Recipient of the 2023 President’s Recognition of Excellence:

  • Igor D. Gregoric, MD, MBA

“I am proud to honor these outstanding faculty members,” Colasurdo said. “Thank you for joining me as we celebrate their accomplished careers and their commitment to improving the health of our communities through excellence in research, education, and clinical service.”

Kevin A. Morano, PhD, senior vice president for academic and faculty affairs and Roger J. Bulger, MD Distinguished Professor at UTHealth Houston, spoke on the prestigious criteria for the awardees.

“Selection criteria for the Scholar Awards are rigorous — requiring evidence of innovation; recognition; exemplary service to faculty, students, and patients; and elevation of the stature of UTHealth Houston among our peers in Texas, the nation, and across the world,” Morano said.

2023 President’s Scholar Award for Excellence in Research

Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS
Chair for Precision Health
Director, Center for Precision Health
Founding Director, UTHealth Houston Cancer Genomics Core
Founding Director, Biomedical Informatics, Genomics, and Translational Cancer Research Training Program (BIG-TCR)
McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth Houston
Vice President, Office of Cancer Genomic Medicine
UTHealth Houston

“Dr. Zhao’s arrival to UTHealth Houston marked a significant moment in the university’s pursuit of excellence in using biomedical informatics to drive innovation in research labs,” Morano said.

Zhao has become a world-class UTHealth Houston research scientist and a symbol of dedication to the future of biomedical informatics. He arrived at UTHealth Houston in January 2016 from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he held multiple leadership roles in bioinformatics and cancer research.

Over the next several years, Dr. Zhao’s leadership led to the development and deployment of a robust precision medicine program, the Center for Precision Health at McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth Houston, where he serves as professor, chair, and director. The academic center has flourished under his directorship, supported by interrelated services, including the Cancer Genomics Center and the Biomedical Informatics, Genomics, and Translational Cancer Research Training Program (BIG-TCR), both funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), two NIH U01, and many other grants. He currently serves as a principal investigator on seven grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling more than $14 million, researching Alzheimer’s disease, cancer immunotherapeutics, and deep learning models for genetic research. He is the principal investigator on 10 active grants in total.

Zhao is affiliated with the Programs in Genetic and Epigenetics, and Quantitative Sciences at MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School.

“We have developed an amazing research lab,” Zhao said. “Their talent makes me so excited on this frontier of informatics research and to be recognized in the field across the country and internationally. It’s my honor to work with them. What I always say is your success is my success.”

2023 President’s Scholar Award for Excellence in Teaching

Harold A. Henson, PhD, RDH
Professor, Department of Periodontics and Dental Hygiene
Director, Center for Teaching and Learning
Program Coordinator, Master of Science in Dental Hygiene Program
UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry
The University of Texas System Distinguished Teaching Professor

“Dr. Colasurdo once described Dr. Henson as ‘a transformative force in dental hygiene education.’ No truer words have ever been said,” said Lisa Cain, associate vice president of faculty affairs and development at UTHealth Houston. “Dr. Henson is recognized locally, nationally, and internationally for teaching excellence, and has been a valued member of the School of Dentistry for more than 20 years.”

Professor and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and program coordinator for the Master of Science in Dental Hygiene Program at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry, Henson’s teaching philosophy reflects a dedication to creating a student-centered learning environment. Henson, who joined UTHealth Houston in 1998 and became a full-time faculty member in 2003, has taught at all levels of curriculum — graduate, predoctoral, and undergraduate — and served in a variety of administrative positions.

Henson has been recognized repeatedly for his educational leadership at the School of Dentistry, receiving several Dean’s Excellence Awards for teaching or mentoring over the years, and twice being awarded the Lorna J. Bruning Award for Outstanding Teaching. He is a 2023 inductee into The University of Texas Kenneth I. Shine, MD, Academy of Health Science Education, only the second dental hygienist to be included in this distinguished group. In 2021, he was named a recipient of the UT System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award.

“Teaching is a diverse and rich experience, much like a box of chocolates,” Henson said. “Each type of chocolate symbolizes a different facet of our roles as educators, and together they create a delicious blend of knowledge, challenges, creativity, and success. In a few weeks, I celebrate 25 years at UTHealth Houston, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this educational journey with all of you.”

2023 President’s Scholar for Excellence in Clinical Service

Mya Schiess, MD
Professor, Department of Neurology
Adriana Blood Distinguished Chair in Neurology
Director, Movement Disorders Fellowship
McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston
Director, Movement Disorders and Neurodegenerative Diseases Program
UTHealth Houston Neurosciences

“Dr. Schiess takes the time to educate her patients, their family members, and caregivers about their conditions and progression,” Morano said. “She tailors care to the needs of the individual — with the goal of restoring or keeping them at their highest level of functioning.”

Schiess, renowned in the field of movement disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, has dedicated her career to providing exceptional clinical care, training the next generation of specialists, and conducting innovative research that holds the potential for life-changing impact on millions of patients with movement disorders.

A faculty member of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston since 1999, Schiess serves as professor, director of the Movement Disorders and Neurodegenerative Diseases Program, director of the Movement Disorders Fellowship training program, and Adriana Blood Distinguished Chair in Neurology. Board-certified in psychiatry and neurology, Schiess specializes in the medical and surgical management of Parkinson’s disease and Parkinsonian syndromes, tremor states, dystonia, ataxia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. The Movement Disorders and Neurodegenerative Diseases Program offers care to more than 6,000 patients in the Greater Houston area and is a referral center for the state of Texas and surrounding states.

“This work would not have been possible without our dedicated clinical staff, fellows, researchers, and colleagues and the supportive environment of UTHealth Houston that fosters science, investigation, and its translation to therapeutics for improving patient care,” Schiess said. “I am incredibly grateful to my family, to this university, to all the amazing people I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and to the patients who have entrusted us with their care. Thank you for this honor.”

President’s Recognition of Excellence Award

Igor D. Gregoric, MD, MBA
Professor, Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery
Director of Research, Center for Advanced Heart Failure
Chief and Program Director, Surgical Division
UTHealth Houston Center for Advanced Cardiopulmonary Therapies and Transplantation (ACTAT)
McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston

Gregoric is the fifth recipient of this special award created by Colasurdo to recognize overall exemplary dedication and service to UTHealth Houston while demonstrating longstanding excellence in a chosen profession.

“There is no one on Earth who knows more about the human heart than Dr. Gregoric, and no single physician is more experienced to repair or replace a broken heart,” Morano said. “Today, we honor him not only for his contributions to UTHealth Houston, but to the practice of medicine.”

Gregoric leads the surgical division of the UTHealth Houston Center for Advanced Cardiopulmonary Therapies and Transplantation (ACTAT), which provides patient-centered therapies and care for patients in advanced stages of heart failure and lung disease.

Board-certified in thoracic surgery, Gregoric has performed tens of thousands of open-heart surgeries over his illustrious career, including more than 1,000 heart transplants and 35 artificial heart implants, as well as more than 1,000 ventricular assist devices to help a failing heart pump blood throughout the body. A native of Slovenia, Gregoric was recruited to train at Texas Heart Institute under the leadership of Dr. Denton A. Cooley, who is credited with performing the first successful heart transplant.

At ACTAT, Gregoric leads a team that conducts groundbreaking research to improve treatment outcomes for patients in the Greater Houston area and across the nation. He is the principal investigator or co-investigator of more than 20 research trials at the center, and has published more than 400 original articles.

“I cannot feel more privileged, humbled, and enormously appreciative for the opportunity given to me to lead and be the captain of this ship called ACTAT,” Gregoric said. “It is my belief that its future is very bright. I would like to recognize Dr. Biswajit Kar, my ACTAT co-chair, without whom the success of our department would have been possible. Thank you all for this prestigious award that does not belong only to me but to all of our ACTAT faculty and employees. Without these fantastic people I would not be standing here.”

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