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Vitae 2013: People and Stories that Drive Research

 Prestigious research awards and grants are the lifeblood of researchers. They are the reward of those who spend their days – and often nights – puttering around laboratories, conducting experiments and gathering data, ever searching for elusive answers to perplexing scientific questions.

The University of Utah Health Sciences is no stranger to great scientific discoveries and the dedicated souls who scratch for every last scrap of insight to unlock the mysteries of life. Late last month, the School of Medicine Dean's Office Research Unit honored 10 of its great young scientists at Vitae 2013, held in the EIHG auditorium.

Amy Davis, Ph.D., is the research unit's director of research program development. She proposed Vitae as "an annual event to showcase the people behind award-winning, innovative research programs."

"We named the event ‘Vitae,'" Davis says, "Because its purpose is to share important moments that have influenced the course of a researcher's life and career."

Davis believes that research culture and conventions can be quite foreign to most lay people, and research spiels can alienate listeners. She and others in the Research Unit felt that asking researchers to emphasize their personal connections to their research would help listeners, including potential research philanthropists, engage with researchers and also help the researchers step back and see their work from a different viewpoint.

The speakers at this year's standing room only event were chosen based on major awards they had received from the National Institutes of Health and prominent research foundations. But their Vitae presentations differed from what they might normally present to their peers and

colleagues, many of who were in the audience. Davis and other Vitae organizers asked the speakers to focus on their personal stories, especially those illustrating why they had chosen their specific research focus.

auditorium where awards were presented
Photography Credit: Adelaide Ryder, School of Medicine Medical Graphics and Photography

"Research is largely funded by the public, yet it is typically far removed from public discourse," says Davis. "My hope for this event was that audience members would walk away with interesting and inspiring stories to share at the dinner table with their families and friends."So rather than diving right into data, the researchers began by telling stories from their childhoods and professional careers. From growing up on a farm in Oklahoma to struggling with ADHD, and from losing family members to cancer or having to deliver painful diagnoses to the hopeful parents of a sick child, the Vitae stories introduced the human side of research.

Following the presentations and a brief Q&A with each researcher, the discussion continued into the night at a reception in the atrium of the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics.

Davis believes that Vitae 2013 was a success. "The speakers were amazing from start to finish," she says. "After the event we received emails from many department chairs commenting on how inspiring the speakers were and how important Vitae is to bring the community together around a variety of cutting-edge research topics."

"The turnout was tremendous and made us think hard about how to make Vitae 2014 worth people's valuable time," says Davis. "Next year we will have shorter, possibly fewer, presentations so there is more time for discussion."

School of Medicine department chairs and faculty are encouraged to send suggestions for Vitae 2014 speakers throughout the year. Nominations and inquiries regarding next year's event can be made to Amy Davis at

Vitae 2013 Speakers, Academic Departments and Awards

(By order in which they presented)

June Round, Ph.D., Pathology
2013 Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences

Ryan O'Connell, Ph.D., Pathology
2013 NIH Director's New Innovator Award

Trudy Oliver, Ph.D., Oncological Sciences, Huntsman Cancer Institute
2013 Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award

Nels Elde, Ph.D., Human Genetics
2012 Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences

Adam Frost, M.D., Ph.D., Biochemistry
2013 NIH Director's New Innovator Award

Jason Shepherd, Ph.D., Neurobiology & Anatomy
2013 Angelman Syndrome Foundation Award

Cam Arrington, M.D., Ph.D., Pediatric Cardiology
2012 Doris Duke Clinical Scientist Development Award

Megan Williams, Ph.D., Neurobiology & Anatomy
2013 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellow

Josh Bonkowsky, M.D., Ph.D., Pediatric Neurology
2012 NIH Director's New Innovator Award

Christopher Gregg, Ph.D., Neurobiology & Anatomy
2013 Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative