UNC Health Talk

Dr. Robert Sandler receives the Julius Friedenwald Medal

Monday, May 18, 2015

Robert Sandler, MD, MPH, the Nina and John Sessions Distinguished Professor of Medicine and chief emeritus of the GI division at UNC Hospitals, recently received the Julius Friedenwald Medal from the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). The AGA’s announcement is below:

AGA bestows its highest honor, the Julius Friedenwald Medal, on Robert S. Sandler, MD, MPH, for his lifelong contributions to the field of gastroenterology and the AGA. The Friedenwald Medal is the highest honor AGA bestows on a member.

Dr. Sandler’s career has been directed by a desire to make a difference in patients with GI disorders. This desire has led to an extraordinarily productive career that has focused on research investigating the etiology and prevention of colon cancer; training and mentoring a generation of GI epidemiologists and academic gastroenterologists; directing the University of North Carolina (UNC)’s multidisciplinary NIDDK-funded Center for Gastrointestinal Biology and Disease; heading the North Carolina Colorectal Cancer Care Outcomes, Research and Surveillance study; developing a national clinical trials data management resource; leading an outstanding division of gastroenterology and hepatology; and committing significant time serving as an AGA leader. Dr. Sandler has accomplished these many achievements by tireless and highly efficient work, consensus building, and incredible organizational and administrative skills.

Dr. Sandler sailed largely uncharted waters when he planned to pursue a career in GI epidemiology, and he can be credited with giving the field of digestive disease epidemiology and outcomes an early boost. His productive career evolved gradually from the study of environmental influences (particularly dietary factors) on colorectal cancer to chemoprophylactic agents, screening methods, genetic influences, and, most recently, molecular epidemiology. His epidemiologic research is intellectually rigorous, while always considering pragmatic questions, asked by someone who has obviously considered the clinical issues involved in taking care of patients.

In 1990, recognizing the importance of having a well-trained cadre of individuals who could contribute to understanding the epidemiology of GI disease and conduct high-quality outcomes research, Dr. Sandler established the first NIH?funded training program in GI epidemiology. The program allowed gastroenterologists to obtain an MPH degree, but more importantly, created a conducive environment for like?minded aspiring faculty.

It is unusual to find an issue of a GI journal in which one of Dr. Sandler’s many papers is not referenced. Dr. Sandler has published more than 345 papers in the peer-reviewed literature. While his research has primarily focused on colorectal neoplasia (including a highly cited first-authored paper in the New England Journal of Medicine), he has also published original papers on IBD, diverticulosis, gallstones, IBS and gastric cancer.

Over his career, Dr. Sandler has received more than $48 million in extramural funding. He has been continuously funded by the NIH since 1982, including nine R01 awards as principal investigator. He was the youngest director when he assumed leadership of UNC’s NIH-funded digestive disease research center in 1992, and after more than two decades, he is among the longest continuously serving center directors.

Dr. Sandler has worked selflessly for AGA in many capacities. From 2008 to 2009, Dr. Sandler served as president of AGA, and he has served two other terms on the AGA Governing Board. He is currently the chair of the AGA Publications Committee, and has previously served on the Nominating Committee (twice — once as chair), Audit Committee, Executive Committee, Outcomes Research Award Review Panel, Futures Committee, Research Policy Committee, Burden of Disease Task Force, Public Policy Committee, and GI Oncology Task Force. He served as an associate editor of Gastroenterology and is currently a member of the Gastroenterology Advisory Board.

Dr. Sandler has been a valued mentor both locally and nationally, and for this undying commitment he received the AGA Distinguished Mentor Award in 2014. Because of Dr. Sandler’s efforts to educate the next generation of clinical researchers in gastroenterology, he has guaranteed that his impact on the field will persist long after his last study is completed.

People who have worked with Dr. Sandler consider him to be reliable, visionary, diligent, flexible and always ready to lend a hand. He leads by example and, through his hard work, sets high standards. Despite his international reputation and active research program, his colleagues attest that Dr. Sandler’s name appears on the call schedule in the same ratio as everyone else’s.

Dr. Sandler received his undergraduate degree, summa cum laude, from Union College in Schenectady, NY. He received his medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, and his masters of public health from UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. Sandler has committed his entire professional career to the UNC, serving in growing capacities since he first joined the department of medicine as a GI fellow in 1978.

The AGA Institute gratefully acknowledges AstraZeneca for making this award possible through a restricted grant.