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Massey researchers recognized with VCU distinguished faculty awards

VCU Massey Cancer Center’s director, Gordon Ginder, M.D., and Massey researcher, Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., were recognized with prestigious awards at Virginia Commonwealth University’s 2015 Opening Faculty Address and Convocation on Tuesday, August 18. Awards were presented to faculty members who have distinguished themselves and the university through their commitment to excellence, service, teaching and scholarship.

Ginder, who is also a medical oncologist and member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at Massey and professor in the VCU Division of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care, received the University Award of Excellence. Eissenberg, a member of Massey’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program, director of the VCU Center for the Study of Tobacco Products and professor in the VCU Department of Psychology, received the Distinguished Scholarship Award.

The following are excerpts from the Convocation program recognizing the contributions of Ginder and Eissenberg.

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University Award of Excellence
Gordon Ginder

Dr. Gordon Ginder recalls a book he read as a teenager that, looking back on it now, offered particularly prophetic wisdom. 

“I read a book before college called ‘Excellence,’” he says. “The author described excellence as taking your talents and your passion and applying them to the best of your ability. He said you could strive for excellence if you give it all you’ve got.”

As his colleagues are quick to note, Dr. Ginder gives it all he’s got, every day — as an innovative and collaborative scientist, a skilled and dedicated teacher, an effective leader and a caring individual. He quietly, and modestly, exudes excellence in the areas of teaching, scholarship and service.

“VCU and the world are a much better place due to the tireless efforts of Gordon Ginder, M.D., as physician scientist, educator and administrator,” writes Dr. John D. Roberts, professor of medicine (medical oncology) at Yale Cancer Center [formerly a medical oncologist and researcher at Massey and professor at VCU].

Since 1997, Dr. Ginder has served as the director of Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center. The role suits his goal to have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people. Although he loves clinical work and research, the administrative position at Massey was an irresistible challenge. Before coming to VCU, Dr. Ginder served as associate director of the Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota.

“I feel at the end of the day maybe I’ve accomplished more by being able to help others do good research and teach,” he says.

A gifted clinician and researcher, Dr. Ginder shares his expertise with graduate and medical students while creating, he says, “an environment where people are excited about learning.” He hopes to excite students about the discovery process. “When they come to you with an idea and a proposed experiment — that’s one of the greatest pleasures.”

When Dr. Ginder was a second-year medical student, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and lived with it for 17 years. The radiation treatments available in the early 1970s irreparably damaged her healthy tissue, and it set Dr. Ginder on a course to research and find alternatives. “We need better treatments that don’t do so much harm,” he says.

His areas of research interest include gene regulation, gene expression and bone marrow transplantation, which, simply stated, means he focuses on understanding the basic mechanisms of what makes a cell behave the way it does and how one can take that information to direct, treat or prevent cancer (or blood diseases).

“With such an enormous administrative commitment, it is notable that Dr. Ginder has maintained an active personal research program,” writes Dr. Jerome F. Strauss III, former interim vice president for Health Sciences and CEO of the VCU Health System, and dean of the VCU School of Medicine. 

Under Dr. Ginder’s vision and leadership, VCU Massey Cancer Center has become a world-class treatment center.

“The growth of Massey from a small center with a limited research portfolio and a narrow focus on leukemia/lymphoma to a bustling research enterprise populated with international scientific and clinical experts covering the spectrum of malignant disease has been stunning,” writes Dr. Steven R. Grossman, Dianne Nunnally Hoppes Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at Massey [and deputy director of Massey, member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics and Developmental Therapeutics research programs at Massey, professor and chair of the VCU Division of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care, and medical director of the Oncology Service Line at the VCU Medical Center]. “It is not an overstatement to say that Gordon’s leadership of Massey has been transformative.”

Supporting an organization such as the Massey Cancer Center requires dedication to fundraising and the ability to cultivate strong relationships in the community. “Dr. Ginder makes the Richmond community feel that the Massey Cancer Center is their cancer center and builds broad and deep loyalty and support for its mission,” writes Dr. Strauss.

Distinguished Scholarship Award
Thomas Eissenberg

In 1999 a new tobacco product called Accord caught the attention of Dr. Thomas Eissenberg, then assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. His primary area of research is the behavioral pharmacology of drugs of abuse, so he was understandably intrigued. Accord was one of several cigarette alternatives collectively called potential reduced exposure products, or PREPs, cigarette-like products marketed as being less harmful. Little was known about their effects despite aggressive marketing campaigns.

 When Accord was launched by Richmond, Virginia-based Philip Morris, in essentially the university’s backyard, Dr. Eissenberg, who joined the VCU faculty in 1997, was applying clinical laboratory and clinical trial methods to the development of opioid dependence pharmacotherapies and had recently published research related to cigarettes. Thinking about Accord, he wanted to know: Are products marketed to cigarette smokers as cigarette alternatives less harmful than cigarettes? His search for answers resulted in the first National Institutes of Health grant to study PREPs.

 Asking the right questions at the right time has been the hallmark of his career. 

“Dr. Eissenberg’s scholarly contributions are characterized by his asking straightforward and vital questions — seemingly obvious questions, though he is often the first to ask them — about significant public health issues, and then conducting research that answers these questions and has important applied health and public policy implications,” writes Dr. Wendy Kliewer, professor and chair of the VCU Department of Psychology.

In 2013, VCU received an $18.1 million P50 grant — the third-largest grant in its history — to create the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products in the Department of Psychology, where so-called modified risk tobacco products, or MRTPs, and other novel tobacco goods, such as e-cigarettes, would be studied. Dr. Eissenberg is co-principal investigator on the grant with Dr. Robert L. Balster, Butler Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry in the VCU School of Medicine.

The emergence of hookah use in American culture, especially among adolescents and college students, has provided yet another intriguing avenue of research and a second question for Dr. Eissenberg: What is the prevalence of tobacco smoking using a hookah in the U.S., and what are the likely health effects of this smoking method?

“Dr. Eissenberg was clearly ahead of the curve in asking these questions,” Dr. Kliewer continues. “Early on he was denied a federal grant to study this area — because it was perceived by reviewers as an unimportant health issue in the U.S. — the same week that Sahara, a restaurant behind the VCU Department of Psychology, opened a hookah cafe.”

“Cigarettes are regulated by the FDA, but there are these other products that we know nothing about,” says Dr. Eissenberg. “They need information to design meaningful regulations. [Studying e-cigarettes and hookah] is a huge opportunity to produce information that’s important in people’s lives.”

 With more than $25 million in current federal grant funding primarily from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Eissenberg has been well funded to conduct his research. He’s published more than 135 articles since 1990 in some of the most prestigious medical, psychological and addictions journals in the world. Since 2009, he’s published 58 papers, a rate of nine to 10 per year, three times the rule of thumb for strong academic productivity in psychology.

 “His scientific output is quite unique,” writes Dr. Wasim Maziak, professor and chair of Florida International University’s epidemiology department, who often collaborates with Dr. Eissenberg.

As long as there are questions to ask, Dr. Eissenberg will be seeking answers. “I don’t want to nibble around the edges of something we already know a lot about,” he says.

Editor’s note: The excerpts from the Convocation program above were written by VCU University Relations.

Written by: Jenny Owen

Posted on: August 18, 2015

Category: Center news & funding