Pitt names five Distinguished Professors

By Andrew Shull

Pitt recognized five professors last week for their outstanding achievements in health-related… Pitt recognized five professors last week for their outstanding achievements in health-related fields.

Donald Burke was named a Distinguished University Professor, while William Klunk, Timothy Billiar, Angela Gronenborn and Peter Strick were named Distinguished Professors, according to a press release issued by the University.

A Distinguished University Professor must achieve at the highest levels in multiple fields, whereas a Distinguished Professor is recognized for excellence in one field, according to the website for the Office of the Provost.

“It’s rare to be honored as a Distinguished Professor; I take this as a great honor,” Burke said.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg appointed the five professors after they were recommended by Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia Beeson, according to the press release.

Pitt spokesman John Fedele said there are now 63 Distinguished faculty members at Pitt, excluding endowed chairs.

“To me, it is a recognition that they value my work and my contributions. I see it as a challenge to maintain that level,” Klunk said. The professor of psychiatry received his award for his research on Alzheimer’s disease.

All five professors’ work focuses on health.

Burke, a professor of health science and policy, is internationally recognized for his work on the prevention of global epidemics. In addition to

serving as the dean of the Graduate School of Public Health, Burke continues to do research.

He said his current research focuses on building models of global epidemics and using the results of those models to find the best possible way to respond to potential epidemics — “epidemiology in silicon” as he referred to it.

Klunk, working in partnership with Pitt professor of radiology Chester Mathis, developed a new imaging technique that allows for the detection of certain plaque deposits in the brain that develop in Alzheimer’s patients before any symptoms of the disease appear. Klunk said that his technique is currently being used in drug trials that could help treat Alzheimer’s.

“Our goal isn’t to give people bad news earlier and leave them hanging,” he said. “We want to get them good news.”

Billiar is a surgeon who works in the School of Medicine’s surgery department. According to the press release, Billiar’s main field of study is the immune response to injury and shock. His research has resulted in seven patents.

Although Gronenborn and Strick are the only two Distinguished Professors this year who are not medical doctors, they both focus their research on human health.

Gronenborn studies structural biology, which looks at the three-dimensional shapes of molecules and how these shapes affect the way molecules function.

Gronenborn’s work has unlocked the shape of a number of different proteins, including some related to HIV and AIDS.

Strick’s work focuses on neurobiology, specifically how the cerebral cortex controls voluntary motion. According to the press release, Strick has discovered six different brain areas that play a role in motion.

The press release also said that his research on certain circuits could unlock the causes of schizophrenia, depression, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  

Strick was abroad when asked for comment on the story and said that he was unaware he even obtained the title.

Gronenborn did not respond to requests for comment, and Billiar declined to comment.

For Klunk and Burke, it sufficed to say their work isn’t over.

Burke, who took the position of dean five years ago, said he envisions Pitt rising from national prominence to international prominence in medical research. He said his other main goal is to direct medicine towards under-privileged populations and fight pre-mature mortality.

Klunk wants to branch out from Alzheimer’s research and develop similar imaging techniques for other kinds of dementia.

He also wants to develop treatments for a special group of Alzheimer’s patients who develop the disease in their 30s and 40s.

“It just calls out for treatment. I want to see if we can help this special group of people,” he said.