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2024 VA Research Week Kickoff Event

We're proud to announce a live award presentation by the Honorable Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, held on May 13. This event recognized the remarkable efforts of five VA researchers who exemplify this year's theme, "Building Community Through Research."

Dr. Matthew Rettig

Dr. Matthew Rettig

Dr. Matthew Rettig, chief of the Division of Hematology-Oncology in VA Greater Los Angeles. 
John Blair Barnwell Award for Outstanding Achievement in Clinical Science Research and Development

Dr. Rettig’s work in cancer research is a true demonstration of the community effort from our governmental and nongovernmental partners that goes into VA research, having received funding from the National Institute of Health, Department of Defense, Prostate Cancer Foundation and more. Dr. Rettig even hammered out a Memorandum of Understanding between the VA and the Prostate Cancer Foundation in 2016 that guaranteed an initial investment of $50 million from the Prostate Cancer Foundation into VA’s precision oncology program.  This program has proven so successful it has grown into 20 centers of excellence and expanded into innovative lung cancer screening efforts as well.

His work on prostate cancer – the second-most lethal form of cancer among Veterans – has discovered multiple biomarkers, including toxic exposures.  These early indicators of cancer help doctors across the nation to discover the disease in its early stages, and thus dramatically increase the odds of survival.  He also developed a database of every Veteran with prostate cancer treated by the VA, going back to the dawn of the electronic health record.  This database of nearly 300 searchable fields and over 1.2 million entries has proven to be an invaluable resource for the research community at large.

Most recently, Dr. Rettig has assembled a team of researchers that will develop artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to predict the possible recurrence of high-risk prostate cancer, a condition that represents a fifth to a quarter of all new cases.  Once complete, this AI will greatly improve patient outcomes for Veterans, and help make the President’s Cancer Moonshot of preventing more than 4 million cancer deaths by 2047 into a reality. 

Dr. Alvin Powers

Dr. Alvin Powers

Dr. Alvin Powers, staff physician at the VA Tennessee Valley Health System in Nashville, TN.   
William S. Middleton Award

Dr. Powers has been a VA researcher since 1991, and the director of the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center since 2005.  His research has had a major impact on our understanding of diabetes, a condition that effects approximately one in every six Veterans, and about ten percent of the general population. 

In particular, Dr. Powers has advanced medical science’s understanding of the role the pancreas plays in maintaining blood glucose levels.  He not only identified how the dysfunction of pancreatic islets and beta cells can contribute to diabetes, he found new ways to regenerate and proliferate these cells and reduce the burden of hypoglycemia.

These discoveries have brought Dr. Powers an international reputation, considerable recognition, and increased visibility, which has only fueled his work in mentoring the next generation of VA researchers.  Not only has he guided several individuals to their own successful VA careers, he has helped VA’s Endocrinology Section and Research Service attract top-notch talent that expands and amplifies VA’s ability to deliver to the best possible care to our Veterans. Dr. Powers also provides endocrinology and general medical in-patient care, serves on R&D and Clinical Credentialing Committees, and is a chair to the advisory subcommittee for the Nashville VA’s Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center.  He’s served in multiple medical societies, including as president, Medicine and Science, of the American Diabetes Association in 2017.

Dr. Paula Bickford

Dr. Paula Bickford

Dr. Paula Bickford, senior research career scientist at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Florida
William S. Middleton Award

Dr. Bickford was one of the first scientists to study the impact of the immune system on aging and neuro-degenerative diseases, a train of research that later evolved into the study of nutritional approaches on brain aging and disease.  This makes her work vitally important to the discovery of new treatments for traumatic brain injuries. 

She first published on the effect of botanical products on the brain in 1998, where she demonstrated how many of the micronutrients that naturally occur in plants can reduce inflammation and increase antioxidant levels.  For example, blueberries can provide a protective effect against many types of brain disease.  This led to her creation of a botanical formula that improves cognition and brain repair in Veterans.

Dr. Bickford’s research also extends into the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine.  Her recent work discovered a promising new method to rescue brain injury: one that can reduce secondary effects like neuro-inflammation when administered within 48 hours of the injury.  She is currently expanding her work in this area as a possible treatment for Parkinson’s disease.  As a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery and Brain Repair, Dr. Bickford will be the first to tell you her proudest accomplishment is her students.  She has mentored many trainees to productive and impactful careers of her own, and found great reward in working with young scientists as they grow into the medical community’s next generation of leaders. She is also a charter member of the National Academy of Inventors and been a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 2012. 

Dr. Sanjay Saint

Dr. Sanjay Saint

Dr. Sanjay Saint, chief of medicine at the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System in Michigan.
Under Secretary’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Health Services Research

Dr. Saint’s VA career has been supported by numerous grants, totaling over $40 million.  This highlights his ability to understand those factors affecting Veterans’ health, consider the Veteran’s perspective, leverage insight from frontline clinicians, and harness the power of team science.   He is an international expert in patient safety, particularly in preventing hospital-acquired complications, and is a living demonstration that when the entire hospital community works together, they can have a global impact. 

What began as work on urinary catheters extended to infection prevention and eventually a broad field of patient safety.  This has led to over 400 peer-reviewed papers, in such prestigious publications as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association.  Dr. Saint has even written for The Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review and co-authored multiple books on medicine and health.  His book, “Preventing Hospital Infections: Real-World Problems, Realistic Solutions”  has been translated into multiple languages, such as French, Italian, and Japanese.
Dr. Saint is also a current and long-standing member of the Investigator Leadership Council at the Ann Arbor Health Systems Research Center of Innovation, and founder of Ann Arbor’s Clinical Research Mentoring Program.  Not only has this program supported over 30 faculty at VA’s Ann Arbor facility, but it’s also doubled the funding over the last eight years.  He also serves on 14 mentorship committees and even chairs six of them. 

In addition to multiple international honors, Dr. Saint was presented the Health System Impact Award in 2017, one of the highest honors the health system can bestow upon a health services researcher.

Dr. Wes Ely

Dr. Wes Ely

Dr. Wes Ely, associate director of Aging Research for the Veterans Affairs Tennessee Valley Geriatric Research Educational Center
Paul B. Magnuson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Rehabilitation Research and Development

Dr. Ely has been conducting VA-funded research for over 20 years to alleviate suffering and enhance the well-being of this nation’s Veterans. With over 600 peer-reviewed manuscripts to his name, Dr. Ely’s studies into dementia, delirium, and other forms of cognitive illness have made the difference for an untold number of Veterans across the country. 

Dr. Ely and his colleagues developed the Confusion Assessment Method for the ICU, which is the recommended standard of care for all patients on mechanical ventilation by the Society for Critical Care Medicine. He is also the founder and co-director of the Critical Illness, Brain Dysfunction, and Survivorship Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Dr. Ely mentors dozens of student doctors at Vanderbilt, and most recently helped establish the Charles M. Vallee Biorepository for Long COVID Science, which seeks to advance medical science’s understanding of Long COVID and its underlying mechanisms by collecting and storing high-quality samples.   He is also the author of  ‘Every Deep-Drawn Breath,’ a non-fiction narrative about illness and recovery that won the 2022 Christopher Award.  Dr. Ely donates 100% of the net proceeds from his book to an endowment that helps ICU and Long COVID survivors rebuild their lives. 

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