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08
2016

Door Opens Wide for Biostatistician

You might not picture a biostatistician on the front lines of saving lives. But Maureen McBride, PhD’95 (BIOS), has parlayed her training into a high-powered career at UNOS, the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nation’s transplant network.

Maureen McBride, PhD’95 (BIOS)

Maureen McBride, PhD’95 (BIOS), says she’s “privileged to be in a position where I feel like the work I do helps patients every single day.”

As chief contract operations officer, McBride is part of a six-person C-suite at UNOS, a private nonprofit organization that operates the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network under contract with the federal government. They are tasked with operating the 24-hour computerized organ sharing system that matches donated organs to patients registered on the national organ transplant waiting list. The organization also seeks to increase understanding of the transplant system through education and improve transplant success rates through research and policy. It’s just a stone’s throw from VCU’s MCV Campus.

Her job is an important – and busy – one. “One of my primary responsibilities is to work with our partners in the transplant community and our funders at HRSA [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration],” says McBride. “We make sure everybody’s on the same page with the different projects we have going on.” In addition to contract operations, she oversees three departments at UNOS: member quality, policy and the 24/7 organ placement division.

As she was finishing her doctorate, McBride heard about the opportunity for a senior biostatistician at UNOS. Its mission lured her away from thoughts of joining the pharmaceutical industry, a career path that interested many classmates. “It was a very different kind of opportunity. I knew I’d enjoy the direct connection with people in the field. I knew I’d have opportunity to work with people on national policy-making committees, to give presentations, write manuscripts and do collaborative research.”

In 2006, McBride became director of research, providing expertise in research, analysis and performance measurement conducted by UNOS staff. In 2014, she was promoted to her current position.

She’s pleased to help advance organ availability and transplantation through education, technology and policy development.

“I started as biostatistician involved in research and data, but now my scope has broadened to include policy development, performance improvement and compliance. Our organization is growing, medicine is evolving, and with a foundational education, you can go many different directions,” she says.
“The depth of her knowledge about how UNOS and transplantation work is amazing,” says Brian Shepard, CEO of UNOS. “Whenever I’m trying to understand something that nobody else seems to understand, I go to Maureen.”

It’s a time of growth at UNOS. The field of transplantation is expanding rapidly, with transplants in the U.S. up 6 percent last year and trending toward a 10 percent uptick this year. “I feel privileged to be in a position where I feel like the work I do helps patients every single day,” McBride notes.

McBride appreciates the long-standing relationship between VCU and UNOS. Noted transplant surgeons H.M. Lee, M.D., and David Hume, M.D., helped push the passing of the National Organ Transplant Act that founded the organization now known as UNOS. VCU is also a source of interns and hires for UNOS.

McBride’s top priority remains focusing on the lifesaving mission of UNOS. “There are currently 120,000 people on the waiting list,” she says. “But we’re only going to do about 30,000 transplants this year. Demand always far exceeds the supply.” She encourages everyone to make their wishes regarding organ donation known to their loved ones.

By Lisa Crutchfield

08
2016

Personal Touch: Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry forges one-on-one connections in Australia

Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry

Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry traveled to Australia to study data from the Brisbane Longitudinal Twins Study. While there, she also visited the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.

Amanda Gentry flew halfway around the world to collect complex data for her dissertation, but the long journey proved even more important in a very personal way.

“I got to work one-on-one with the most amazing scientists,” she said. “In the age of technology, sometimes the value of face time is not appreciated. I think people forget that science is largely a creative endeavor. You need personal interactions to get the creative juices going.”

Gentry, who this fall starts her fifth year as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biostatistics, traveled to Australia in June to work with scientists collecting and studying data from the Brisbane Longitudinal Twins Study. Gentry’s work examines current methods for analyzing personality, drug use data, and high-dimensional genomic data.

“I’m developing methods to try and determine what personality and DNA measures are related to marijuana use,” she said. “Can you predict someone’s marijuana use based on the information we have on their personality, their demographics and their genes? That’s pretty cool stuff.”

She spent more than two weeks at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane working alongside world renowned scientists, some of whom have spent their entire careers collecting and researching the data from the twins study.

“Here I was this stranger, and these brilliant scientists welcomed me,” said Gentry, who also attended the Behavior Genetics Association conference while in Brisbane. “To sit across from them and be able to ask questions was very humbling.”

Gentry’s research is funded through a research education grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, led by Michael Neale, Ph.D, at VCU’s Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. At VIPBG, she began collaborating with Nathan Gillespie, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, who worked alongside Gentry in Brisbane. Both Neale and Gillespie are part of Gentry’s dissertation committee.

“Amanda works very hard and is intellectually curious,” said Neale, a professor of psychiatry and VIPBG’s associate director. “She’s stellar really. I have no doubt she will go on to have a very successful career.”

Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry

“In the age of technology, sometimes the value of face time is not appreciated,” said Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry. “I think people forget that science is largely a creative endeavor.” This photo taken by Gentry shows Brisbane in the evening.

While she is not sure of the exact path she will take, Gentry hopes to return to Australia soon.

“I never thought I’d have the opportunity to travel there,” she said. “If not for people like [Neale and Gillespie], I never would have had this type of opportunity. They have really taken me under their wing, and I am so appreciative.”

While much of her time was devoted to research in the lab, Gentry did make time to experience the countryside. She enjoyed local markets, bookstores and shops. She also visited the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, where she got to hold two koalas, as well as North Stradbroke Island just off the coast.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” she said. “Not only did I learn from some of the brightest minds out there, but I got to see so much of this beautiful country.”

Gentry, 27, grew up in Richmond and graduated from Bryan College in Tennessee in 2011. She worked as a pharmacy technician for a year before coming to the MCV Campus.

“I was drawn to biostatistics because it’s a combination of two things I love – mathematics and medicine,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor because I can’t stand the sight of blood. I’m much more comfortable dealing with numbers. I can’t wait to see where this all leads.”

By Janet Showalter

08
2016

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz helps pinpoint problems, find cures

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz recently wrapped up a two-year study that took him half a world away in a search for answers to problems of malnutrition, stunted growth and oral vaccine failure seen in millions of children.

A two-year research effort took Jeff Donowitz, M.D., half a world away in a search for answers to problems of malnutrition, stunted growth and oral vaccine failure seen in millions of children.

Now, armed with fresh data from the study, he’s ready to move forward, continuing his research on how overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine is damaging the guts of children in low- and middle-income countries.

In 2014, Donowitz, an infectious diseases fellow in VCU’s Department of Pediatrics, was one of just seven pediatricians in the U.S. chosen by the Association of Medical School Pediatric Department Chairs for the Pediatric Scientist Development Program. Over the past two years, he traveled frequently to Dhaka, Bangladesh, seeking to identify a viable cure.

Donowitz’s interest in international public health medicine was ignited by trips to Haiti when he was younger. Later, as he was looking for potential research topics, his interest was piqued by environmental enteropathy, a low-level chronic inflammation in the GI tract that’s found in a large number of children living in unsanitary conditions.

“The effects of environmental enteropathy are very, very broad,” he says. “We have limited understanding of exactly what about it is affecting growth stunting, cognitive delays or oral vaccine failures, so that is partially what we are trying to figure out.”

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz

A Bangladeshi child reminds Donowitz not to step in the open sewer. Environmental enteropathy is a low-level chronic inflammation in the GI tract that’s found in a large number of children living in unsanitary conditions.

His fellowship afforded him the opportunity to examine the issue under the mentorship of William Petri, M.D., Ph.D., the respected chief of Infectious Diseases and International Health at the University of Virginia. Bangladesh has world-class research facilities, including the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, notes Donowitz.

He hypothesized that small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) could, in part, explain those problems in poor communities. “When I started, there were only a few studies looking at SIBO in low-income countries, and most of them were just describing that it was there in large numbers. That’s where I got into the field.”

In his two-year fellowship, Donowitz says his hypothesis proved credible. Overgrowth, which was found in one in six children tested, was indeed associated with inflammation in the GI tract.

But other findings surprised him. “I had thought maybe SIBO was related to diarrheal disease but what we showed was that it’s really related to poor sanitation. So what is it about poor sanitation that leads to overgrowth in these children?”

Donowitz has a hypothesis about that, which he is exploring in a new, larger study of 275 Bangladeshi children who he is following from birth to age 2. “We’ll be measuring SIBO at multiple time points.” With that, he hopes to identify opportunities when treatment will be beneficial for the large numbers of children affected by SIBO.

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz

Armed with his study data, Donowitz is ready to move forward, continuing his research on how overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine is damaging the guts of children in low- and middle-income countries.

“The nice thing about SIBO is that you can treat it with relatively low-cost antibiotics,” he notes. “But the downside to that is antimicrobial resistance. The idea of giving antibiotics on a large scale to a lot of people is not very attractive.”

Not only is Donowitz advancing knowledge about childhood disease, he’s proved to himself that he can secure funding. That’s important, as this fall he’ll be submitting grant requests to continue his work.

Donowitz has a message to prospective researchers. “I think a lot of times, young, smart people get put off of it because they hear that funding is hard to come by. Don’t be dissuaded by the first person who says there’s no money in it. It’s extremely rewarding.”

By Lisa Crutchfield