University of Pittsburgh


Good Fellows

Pitt is among a select national group producing Hartwell Fellows

Written by LaMont Jones, Jr.







Growing up in rural Ohio, the teenager tackled a daily list of chores. He fed pigs, shoveled cow manure, toted buckets of water—all kinds of tough farm work. But whenever he found a spare moment, he liked to sit under his favorite maple tree. There, by a pond, he read and dreamed, aspiring to become everything from an astronaut to a surgeon.

Eventually, fate led the teen, Drew Dudgeon, to a future career.

A beloved cousin developed a deadly blood disease. To see his “bigger and stronger” 23-year-old relative wither away taught Dudgeon that no one is invincible. At the time, no proven treatments were available, and a cure was not possible for Dudgeon’s cousin, who died within a year of the diagnosis.

But it was an era when experimental medicines were starting to show glimmers of promise. So the teenager’s aspirations turned to science, and he decided to become a researcher, hoping to make discoveries that might save lives.

While Dudgeon was cultivating an interest in science, another youngster, Timothy Maul, was growing up elsewhere in Ohio. He, too, developed an affinity for science, influenced by his father, a hospital lab manager. Like Dudgeon, he initially wanted to be a surgeon, but science-fair projects in middle school and later exposure to bioengineering shifted his focus to scientific research.

Both young men pursued science careers in college and, in time, both earned doctoral degrees—Dudgeon from Johns Hopkins University and Maul from the University of Pittsburgh. In 2007, their paths converged at a campus awards dinner.

Each was selected to receive a two-year Hartwell Biomedical Research Fellowship, with $50,000 a year in support. The prestigious national fellowships fund postdoctoral training for budding scientists early in their research careers. The funds are directed to a few, select, qualifying U.S. research institutions—including the University of Pittsburgh—which then determine a handful of candidates and ultimately choose a single fellow for the Hartwell distinction.

Maul—a research associate in the Department of Bioengineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and in the Department of Surgery in the School of Medicine—received the fellowship in 2006. He was at the ceremony the following year to watch Dudgeon—a researcher in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology & Chemical Biology—pick up a 2007 fellowship.

Their association strengthened over the next summer when Maul began searching Pitt’s campus for a Biacore, a delicate state-of the-art instrument used to detect the dance between biological and drug molecules. He found it, thanks to Dudgeon, and now both share a special rapport as they work to complete their Hartwell-funded research projects.

The foundation’s mission is to support innovative biomedical research that potentially benefits children. The fellowship support is aimed at early-stage research projects that haven’t yet qualified for funding from more traditional sources.

The Hartwell Foundation chose Pitt as one of its select institutions because of shared values related to children’s health, says Fred Dombrose, president of the Memphis-based organization. The foundation also took into account Pitt’s first-rate medical school and its established Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Swanson School. It also looked at Pitt’s commitment of technical support for investigators, as well as support for translational approaches that promote rapid clinical application of research results, including technology transfer. “The quality and scope of ongoing research to benefit kids was outstanding,” says Dombrose, who adds, “Pitt ranked high in each category.”

Dudgeon’s research focuses on anticancer therapies. He’s exploring the microworld of proteins and molecules, searching for drugs that trigger the body’s natural “cell-suicide” mechanism as a way to kill cancer cells. Data from the American Cancer Society indicate that, from 1975 to 2004, cancer death rates among children ages 14 and younger decreased, but the incidence rates increased.

Maul, a research associate, is developing new artificial heart technology to help babies and children live longer while waiting for a donor-heart transplant. His research is taking place in several areas—the Swanson School’s bioengineering department, the School of Medicine’s surgery department, and the Pitt-UPMC McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Early in his studies, Maul says he realized that he “could probably do more good for people by developing new medical technologies rather than as a single medical practitioner.”

However, he remains passionate about pediatric medicine and wants to build a career connected to the field. Even as a scientist with a PhD in bioengineering, Maul is drawn toward clinical research through his work at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, where he monitors neonatal and pediatric patients on lifesaving devices.

He and Dudgeon have been working together on a project that involves creating synthetic “microbubbles” to improve blood circulation. Dudgeon runs models to analyze their results, and then the two discuss the outcomes and plan the next experiment. Their collaboration, aided by a lot of e-mail discussion, is typical of the interdisciplinary research that thrives across campus.

The fellows are supported by prominent Pitt faculty who serve as mentors. Dudgeon’s is John S. Lazo, Allegheny Foundation Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Chemical Biology. Maul gets guidance from Harvey S. Borovetz, professor and chair in the Department of Bioengineering and director of the University’s Clinical Bioengineering Program, and William R. Wagner, deputy director of the McGowan Institute, and a professor of surgery, bioengineering, and chemical engineering.

In February 2009, the two postdoctoral fellows were joined by Pitt’s third and newest Hartwell Fellow, Marcie Cole, who is a biochemist in the School of Medicine. A West Virginia native, Cole has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry and a doctoral degree in nutritional sciences and toxicology, all from the University of Kentucky. She is investigating the mechanisms by which inflammation in the body induces chronic metabolic disorders such as diabetes and, perhaps, obesity. Part of her work involves developing new therapies to treat the conditions, with guidance from her mentor, Bruce A. Freeman, professor and chair in the Department of Pharmacology & Chemical Biology.  Cole says she is honored by the fellowship and is interested in collaborating with Dudgeon and Maul.

All three young researchers are tackling important issues. Diabetes is one of the top 10 causes of death among Americans, with heart disease and cancer ranking first and second, respectively. The Hartwell Fellowship distinguishes the three Pitt fellows as among the most promising young scientists at one of the nation’s top biomedical research institutions.

“Science is all about working with others. No one can do it alone,” says Dudgeon. “This kind of science is focused on getting something beneficial out the door, helping people to get better.”