VA Researchers Receive Nation’s Top Award for Early Career Scientists


Recognized for Research from Spinal Cord Injury to Traumatic Brain Injury


WASHINGTON — Four Department of Veterans Affairs researchers were among the 96 recipients of the 2011 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) honored at a ceremony held last month. The PECASE is the highest honor conferred by the U.S. government on federal researchers in the early stages of their careers.

“Research is the lifeblood of our program to provide cutting-edge, world-class medical care to Veterans,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. “The achievements of these four individuals show that VA research is a leader in the health care industry.”

Joining fellow award recipients from 11 other federal agencies were VA investigators Jeffrey R. Capadona, Ph.D., Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center; Charlesnika T. Evans, Ph.D., Hines VA Hospital; Amy M. Kilbourne, Ph.D., VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System; and K. Luan Phan, M.D., Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. The ceremony took place at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Capadona was recognized for key discoveries in the area of biomaterials, including research aimed at enabling the use of long-term implantable electrodes in the brain or possibly elsewhere in the nervous system. Electrodes developed by Capadona’s team may eventually be integrated into devices that can restore sight, hearing, movement, and speech to injured Veterans.

Evans pioneered work to reduce infectious disease among patients with spinal cord injury (SCI) and disorders. She was project manager and co-investigator for research that more than doubled the vaccination rate of those with SCI and is leading the first large-scale study on treatment and outcomes for SCI patients infected by Clostridium difficile, a germ that can lead to severe gastrointestinal conditions.

Kilbourne was honored for putting her advanced knowledge of complex datasets to work improving mental health care for Veterans. Her research was instrumental in implementing an outreach program to identify and re-engage Veterans with serious mental illness who were lost to follow-up. She also developed and led one of VA’s largest educational and research initiatives to help Veterans with bipolar disorder.

Phan was nominated for his cutting-edge research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury in Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. By focusing on how medication and psychotherapy treatments work in the brain and also looking at predictive biomarkers, Phan’s work is aimed at helping guide clinicians and patients toward those treatments with the highest chance for success.

”The outstanding work of these investigators is a microcosm of how VA research itself helps improve the lives of Veterans,” said Dr. Robert Petzel, VA Under Secretary for Health. “We look forward to working with these young scientists as their careers progress.”

Established in 1996, the awards are given each year for “innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology” and a commitment to community service.

VA, which has the largest integrated health care system in the country, also has one of the largest medical research programs. This year, approximately 3,400 researchers will work on more than 2,300 projects with nearly $1.9 billion in funding.

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