Pitt Faculty Member Elodie Ghedin, Alumnus Kevin Guskiewicz Named MacArthur Fellows

Issue Date: 
September 26, 2011
Elodie GhedinElodie Ghedin
Kevin GuskiewiczKevin Guskiewicz

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine faculty member Elodie Ghedin, a parasitologist and virologist, and Pitt alumnus Kevin Guskiewicz (EDUC ’92G), a sports medicine scholar at the University of North Carolina, have each been named a 2011 MacArthur Fellow, a prestigious honor that carries an award of $500,000 in unrestricted support for each recipient. The fellowships, given annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, are awarded for exceptional creativity and the promise for future accomplishments that will benefit human society. In 1996, University of Pittsburgh alumnus and trustee William E. Strickland Jr. (CAS ’90) was named a MacArthur Fellow for his role as an arts educator and the head of two innovative Pittsburgh learning communities, the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center.

Professors Ghedin and Guskiewicz are two of only 22 MacArthur fellowship recipients selected nationwide this year.

“The selection of Pitt faculty member Elodie Ghedin and alumnus Kevin Guskiewicz as prestigious MacArthur Fellows underscores these talented individuals’ already-remarkable achievements, their dedication to their respective fields, and their potential to make ever-greater future advances,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “We extend to each of them our most enthusiastic congratulations.”

Ghedin is an assistant professor in the Pitt School of Medicine’s Department of Computational and Systems Biology. She also is a member of the University’s Center for Vaccine Research. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (1998-2000) and led the Viral Genomics group at the Institute for Genomic Research (2000-06) prior to her appointment to the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. Her scientific articles have appeared in such publications as the Journal of Virology, Science, and Nature. She received a BS from McGill University in 1989, an MS from Université du Québec à Montréal in 1993, and a PhD from McGill University in 1998.

“I’m stunned and excited,” Ghedin said. “With this award, I will expand on my parasitology work, specifically the organism that causes elephantiasis. I also hope to explore new avenues in the evolution of RNA viruses other than influenza.”

School of Medicine Dean Arthur S. Levine, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences, said, “Beyond this extraordinary recognition and honor for Dr. Ghedin, our medical school takes great pride in her ‘Genius’ award. Elodie has used and further developed the most powerful genetic and analytic tools available to explore the mechanisms which parasites employ to sicken and often kill large numbers of people afflicted with such dread infectious diseases as sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, and filariasis. Closer to home, Dr. Ghedin is applying similar methods to increase our understanding of the epidemiology of influenza and certain complications of AIDS. She is unique in having applied the most powerful molecular and computational tools to the study of infectious diseases, which wreak havoc in the lives of millions, and with the results of these studies, Elodie is pointing the way to likely targets for drug and vaccine development.”

Guskiewicz is Kenan Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina, where he is also founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center and research director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. He has been affiliated with the University of North Carolina since 1995. He received a BS from West Chester University in 1989, an MS from the University of Pittsburgh in 1992, and a PhD from the University of Virginia in 1995.

“Being selected a MacArthur Fellow is a tremendous honor for me, my family, and my colleagues,” said Guskiewicz. “Our success has been a result of developing a strong research team, with common goals in mind. Concussion is a very complex injury. Managing this injury effectively is sort of like piecing together a puzzle. Piece by piece, we gain a clearer picture of concussion and its severity,” he said. “As scientists, coaches, administrators, and doctors, we bear the responsibility of keeping our athletes safe.”

Additional information on Ghedin and Guskiewicz provided by the MacArthur Foundation follows.

Elodie Ghedin is a biomedical researcher who is harnessing the power of genetic sequencing techniques into critical insights about human pathogens. Although the technology for obtaining nucleotide sequence data continues to accelerate, the labor-intensive task of analyzing and annotating the resulting data—for example, identifying genes, their functions, and their expression; determining the arrangement of genes within the genome; and performing phylogenetic and functional comparisons with other known species—often lags behind.

Ghedin has established herself as a leader of international projects that coordinate the efforts of scores of scientists to decode the function of some of the most virulent human pathogens. A major focus of her work has been parasites that cause diseases endemic to tropical climates, such as leishmaniasis, sleeping sickness, Chagas disease, elephantiasis, and river blindness. Through her direct research and mobilization of global scientific collaborations, Ghedin’s work illuminates the similarities and differences in the molecular physiology of the various parasites, with important implications for targets for drug development.

Ghedin and her colleagues also are applying similar approaches to understanding viruses that infect humans. RNA viruses such as HIV and influenza mutate particularly rapidly, making vaccine development difficult.  In a high-resolution study of complete genome sequences of influenza A from more than 200 isolates collected in the New York area, Ghedin and her colleagues showed that the virus evolves with surprising rapidity even in a circumscribed geographic region. Through her contributions to parasitology and virology, Ghedin demonstrates that molecular genetics not only is essential for exploring the basic biology of pathogens but also represents a powerful tool in the hands of scientists working in coordination to improve public health across the globe.

Kevin Guskiewicz is a researcher and athletic trainer who has made major advances in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of sports-related concussions.

Each year, approximately 3.8 million athletes in the United States experience mild traumatic brain injuries, or concussions. Through a combination of laboratory and on-the-field research, Guskiewicz has played an important role in raising awareness about the prevalence and dangers of sports-related brain injuries in both professional and youth athletics.

Guskiewicz was among the first to identify the long-term effects of multiple concussions, including cognitive impairment and depression in later life, through large-scale epidemiological studies of retired professional football players. Recognizing the inadequacy of traditional concussion screening tools—most rely solely on an athlete’s self-report of symptoms—Guskiewicz demonstrated that postural control, or balance, serves especially well as an objective measure in the evaluation of concussive episodes. His portable and cost-effective Balance Error Scoring System is now widely used by athletic trainers at colleges and secondary schools to diagnose and manage injury more accurately and rapidly.

Guskiewicz’s recent work focuses on the cumulative effects of repetitive, subthreshold brain impacts. Using accelerometers embedded in the helmets of college football and youth hockey players, he and colleagues are investigating the relationship between magnitude and number of head impacts and clinical symptoms of concussion. Taking this research a step further, he is working directly with collegiate football players and coaches to identify dangerous hits in real time and to correct improper tackling techniques associated with sustaining concussions.

While engaging clinicians, coaches, parents, and athletes in recognizing the immediate and long-term effects of concussions, Guskiewicz is contributing significantly to state and federal policy discussions concerning development of more stringent return-to-play guidelines and head-gear investigations that will improve the safety of athletes of all ages.

About the MacArthur Fellows Program

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.

The Foundation does not require or expect specific products or reports from MacArthur Fellows and does not evaluate recipients’ creativity during the term of the fellowship. The MacArthur Fellowship is a “no strings attached” award in support of people, not projects. Each fellowship comes with a stipend of $500,000 to the recipient, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years.

How MacArthur Fellows Are Chosen

Each year, the MacArthur Fellows Program invites new nominators on the basis of their expertise, accomplishments, and breadth of experience. They are encouraged to nominate the most creative people they know within their field and beyond. Nominators are chosen from as broad a range of fields and areas of interest as possible. At any given time, there are usually more than one hundred active nominators.

Nominations are evaluated by an independent Selection Committee composed of about a dozen leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities professions, and for-profit and nonprofit communities. Each nomination is considered with respect to the program’s selection criteria, based on the nomination letter along with original works of the nominee and evaluations from other experts collected by the program staff.

After a thorough, multistep review, the Selection Committee makes its recommendations to the president and board of directors of the MacArthur Foundation. Announcement of the annual list is usually made in September. While there are no quotas or limits, typically 20 to 30 Fellows are selected each year. Between June of 1981 and September of 2010, 828 Fellows have been named.

Nominators, evaluators, and selectors all serve anonymously and their correspondence is kept confidential. This policy enables participants to provide their honest impressions independent of outside influence. The Fellows Program does not accept applications or unsolicited nominations.