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Vitae 2024: People and Stories that Drive Our Research


Vitae 2024, a hallmark event recognizing research excellence across University of Utah Health, featured six rising-star faculty who are on the forefront of their professions. The annual symposium, presented by Vice Chair for Faculty Affairs and Development Michael Rubin, MD, PhD, on behalf of the Office of the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences Research Unit, allows researchers to share stories of their science, and how they got to where they are today, in a compelling way to a hybrid live and online audience.

Event Speakers

Evan V. Goldstein, PhD

Assistant Professor, Population Health Sciences

Evan V. Goldstein, PhD, MPP

Title: Investigating Firearm-related Suicide Deaths in Underserved and Underrepresented Communities

Research Ambitions: To prevent suicide deaths and firearm violence, especially in populations that are historically underrepresented and underserved in our society.

  • Suicide accounts for most firearm-related deaths in the US, and more than half of suicide deaths involve firearms. Suicide attempts with firearms have an 80-90% case-fatality rate. Of particular concern, firearm-related suicide rates have increased significantly within Hispanic/Latino and Black communities over the last decade. Although health care intervention can help prevent firearm suicide if at-risk patients can access population-appropriate interventions, relatively little is understood about when such interventions are most appropriate for use among different patient populations.

    In 2023, I was awarded a Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to identify the life situations preceding firearm suicide deaths among Black American adults and gather feedback from health professionals and community members on how health care systems can better intervene to prevent firearm suicides in Black American communities. This research responds to the NIH’s call for scientists to identify risk factors and improve firearm suicide prevention in racial/ethnic minority communities. The Career Development Award supporting this work was among the earliest grants awarded by the NIH to investigate firearm mortality following the end of a decades-long effective moratorium on federal funding for firearm injury and
    mortality prevention research.

Keren Hilgendorf, PhD

Assistant Professor, Biochemistry

Keren Hilgendorf

Title: How Do Cells Communicate in Human Tissues

Research Ambitions: To discover druggable targets to improve tissue homeostasis, regeneration, and expansion.

  • Failure of adult stem cells to sense and appropriately respond to tissue-specific cell differentiation cues can contribute to metabolic and aging-related diseases as well as cancer. How stem cells sense and respond to most of these cues, and how this goes awry in disease, is unknown. Our approach to these questions focuses on the primary cilium, a long-ignored signaling organelle found on most stem cells. This antenna-like, cellular protrusion is required for the differentiation of these stem cells. We study how the primary cilium of fat stem cells regulates differentiation. In response to overnutrition, fat tissue expands, requiring the coordinated enlargement of existing fat cells and generation of more fat cells. Fat tissue becomes dysfunctional when excess calories exceed the stem cells’ capacity to generate enough new fat cells. This leads to metabolic disease. We do not yet know how excess calories activate fat stem cells and why this process becomes impaired in some people. My lab studies why the primary cilium of fat stem cells is required for differentiation, what physiological cues are sensed by the primary cilium, and how the primary cilium changes with disease. 

Sabrina Malone-Jenkins, MD

Associate Professor, Pediatrics

Sabrina Malone-Jenkins, MD

Title: Unraveling the Mystery: Exploring the Impact of Rapid Whole Genome Sequencing in the NICU

Research Ambitions: Improve the short- and long-term health outcomes of critically ill infants by promoting the integration of rapid genomic technologies into the standard of care.

  • The presence of rapid genomic diagnostics in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) represents a paradigm shift in genomic medicine, as the NICU has not traditionally been a source of genomic discovery. Demand for rapid genomics has grown alongside increasing evidence of the clinical utility of early diagnosis, including impact on management and outcomes. The goal of our NeoSeq Project is to implement and evaluate a multidisciplinary research rapid sequencing program to improve genetic diagnosis in critically ill infants in the NICU. The NeoSeq and ReSeq Projects provide a longitudinal approach for these patients including reanalysis, RNA, and long-read sequencing. 

    While research studies confirm that rapid whole genome sequencing accelerates diagnoses and life-saving therapies in critically ill newborns, its adoption in clinical setting is lagging. We are working on a dissemination and implementation science project to decrease health care inequities and improve adoption of genome sequencing in both Level 4 (tertiary, metropolitan, higher resourced) and Level 3 (non-tertiary, rural, lower resourced) NICUs.

Nirupama Ramkumar, MD

Associate Professor, Internal Medicine

Nirupama Ramkumar

Title: Understanding Kidney Disease Progression, One Mechanistic Step at a Time

Research Ambitions: To delineate the molecular mechanisms by which kidney injury and repair occur, leading to potential therapies for kidney disease. 

  • Chronic kidney disease (CKD) affects an estimated 37 million people in the United States. Regardless of the cause, CKD progression involves activation of inflammatory and fibrotic responses leading to irreversible damage and loss of kidney function. Existing therapies slow CKD progression but are not uniformly effective and not always well tolerated. Hence, there is an urgent need to understand the mechanisms contributing to CKD development and progression. We are interested in delineating the role of the prorenin receptor, a newly discovered component of the renin angiotensin system, in kidney health and disease. The prorenin receptor can exist as a full-length form, bound to a cell membrane. It can also be cleaved to generate a soluble fragment. Through an integrative approach that uses gene targeting, biochemistry techniques and mouse physiology, we aim to establish the role of soluble prorenin receptor in kidney disease and define the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which kidney injury and fibrosis might occur. Our goal is to develop a new therapeutic strategy to combat CKD.  

Kota Takahashi, PhD

Assistant Professor, Health and Kinesiology

Kota Takahashi

Title: A Kinesiologist’s Perspective on the Design of Human Feet

Research Ambitions: Pursuing curiosity-driven research to find discoveries across various biomedical disciplines to improve health outcomes in people with mobility-affecting conditions.

  • As a kinesiologist who studies human movement, I am fascinated by how human feet enable us to maneuver effectively in our daily lives. Our feet are remarkably designed to assist whole-body movement and withstand the repetitive forces and stresses of daily activities. But like all engineered machines, our feet can malfunction at some point in our lives. In older adults, for example, foot muscles become weaker with age, which compromises walking ability. In people with a leg amputation, prosthetic feet do not fully restore biological foot function. These individuals often have secondary comorbidities later in life. In people with vascular disease, impaired heat dissipation in the feet can predispose the tissue to debilitating damage, such as ulcer formation. Our lab is motivated to study healthy and pathology-affected feet using different perspectives across biomechanics, physiology, and engineering. This knowledge will ultimately help us develop science-based interventions such as footwear and prosthetic devices.  


Tsegaselassie Workalemahu, PhD

Assistant Professor, Obstetrics & Gynecology

Tsegaselassie Workalemahu

Title: Expanding Novel Genetic Research to Address Stillbirth: A Silent Epidemic

Research Ambitions: To close the gap in diagnosing unexplained obstetric and neonatal complications and support prevention efforts through therapeutic development. 

  • Every 16 seconds a baby is stillborn. Presently, the causes of approximately half of stillbirth cases are unknown. This knowledge gap has prompted the use of diagnostic tests and treatments that increase cost, anxiety, and even cause harm without clear efficacy. If genetic factors that contribute to stillbirth and successful pregnancy outcome are determined, expensive but non-specific, diagnostic evaluations and interventions for couples suffering the loss could be avoided. Identifying genetic factors contributing to stillbirth could also uncover new diagnostic options for grieving families and therapeutic options for families
    with future pregnancies.

    My team and I investigate risk factors of devastating pregnancy outcomes such as stillbirth. We study the placenta, which is critical for understanding stillbirth and neonatal abnormalities. Our efforts include population-based studies of intergenerational, psychosocial, and environmental factors of stillbirth to guide decisions on resource allocation for interventions. We hope to form a research program that investigates genetic causes of obstetric complications to guide clinical programs and policies for genetic screening and patient counseling, facilitate intervention efforts through biomarker testing for expectant couples, and facilitate therapeutic development to prevent future obstetric complications.

Vignette Videos

Scott Summers

Scott Summers, PhD

Professor and Department Chair

College of Health, Nutrition & Integrative Physiology


A Lifelong Quest

He’s wanted to find a cure for his father’s diabetes since age 14. Now, College of Health researcher Scott Summers, PhD, is on the verge of a groundbreaking new treatment based on a molecule that may be central to the disease.

Andrea Wallace

Andrea Wallace, PhD, RN

Professor and Associate Dean for Research

College of Nursing 


Beyond Clinic Walls

Andrea Wallace, PhD, RN, is using her expertise in health services research to find ways to measure patients’ social needs and connect them to the resources they need most, so that recovery doesn’t stop once patients leave the clinic.