UNC Health Care

UNC School of Medicine announces new class of Simmons Scholars

The academic interests of the three new Simmons Scholars span global health, innovations in medical education, and the basic science of diseases ranging from autism to obesity. Since its launch in 1994, the Simmons Scholars Program has offered support to faculty members from groups traditionally underrepresented in medicine, while also placing an emphasis on building a community of scholars that spans multiple disciplines.

The Simmons Scholars program provides three to five years of salary support, structured mentorship, and career and leadership development opportunities.

This year’s scholars are Benny Joyner, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics and anesthesiology; Raquel Reyes, MD, MPA, assistant professor of medicine; and Damaris Lorenzo, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology and physiology. They will use the funding to pursue their respective research projects.

Benny Joyner, MD, MPH:

Benny Joyner hopes the protected time afforded to Simmons Scholars will allow him the opportunity to further his work on developing a more robust simulation curriculum for students, residents, and staff at UNC Hospitals.

“We’re doing a lot of simulation training, but I think it’s important to add a little more rigor to the process,” Joyner said. “I’d also like to develop additional scholarship in this area and really take a close look at the most effective ways to incorporate simulation training into medical training.”

Joyner’s search for innovative educational techniques began before he was a physician – when he was a high school teacher. He says he still considers himself an “educator first.”

“The breakthroughs being discussed in medical education are things that were being discussed in my classes as an education major at UNC in the early 1990s,” Joyner said. “So, I’m passionate about looking for ways to continue moving forward and finding innovative ways to train our learners.”

While Joyner is heavily involved in simulation training in the department of pediatrics, he is excited about the work being done in other departments and hopes to build strong partnerships.

“I’m not a surgical simulation expert, or an anesthesia simulation expert, or an OB-GYN simulation expert – we have great people who understand how best to utilize simulation in their specific areas,” Joyner said. “So, how can we work together to develop a curriculum across multiple departments to take advantage of the resources and knowledge that we all have while also allowing for the independence to fit simulation training to your needs?”

He said he also has to occasionally convince colleagues of the value of simulation and define exactly where it fits in with the many other ways students are trained.

“Our students obviously benefit from the opportunity to interact with patients, and that’s never going to go away. Simulation is another tool at our disposal,” Joyner said.

One key benefit of simulation training is improved patient safety.

“The old adage is ‘see one, do one, teach one.’ But I hope to see it shifted to ‘see one, practice a whole bunch in simulation, then do a real one,’” Joyner said. “Errors don’t happen because we don’t know what to do; errors happen because we can’t properly put our knowledge into action. Simulation helps with that.”

For these reasons, simulation can be especially beneficial in preparing for emergency situations.

“Our students, residents, and fellows are all learning their roles within the care team,” he said “A medical student may be doing chest compressions or pushing fluids. Our fellows are running the code, and if you’ve never done that, it’s difficult to navigate your duty to command the attention of everyone in the room in a way that is collaborative and respects the talents and expertise of each individual. By simulating those situations, we can strengthen the interpersonal and interprofessional relationships that are so important to care.”

Raquel Reyes, MD, MPA:

Raquel Reyes’ career at the intersection of clinical care and health policy revolves around a deceptively complex question: “How do we solve the issues right in front of us?”

In her work as a hospitalist at UNC Health Care’s Hillsborough Campus, the issue is coordinating care for sick patients who often require attention from multiple providers across many departments.

Raquel Reyes’ career at the intersection of clinical care and health policy revolves around a deceptively complex question: “How do we solve the issues right in front of us?”

As a global health researcher, Reyes has worked internationally to address the issues impacting the health of mothers and children, especially in resource-poor areas. She is currently exploring a growing interest in the impact of non-communicable diseases in the developing world. That interest will be the focus of her work as a Simmons Scholar. Reyes plans to assess the feasibility of a program within the Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases to address the morbidity and mortality associated with non-communicable diseases.

“In developing countries, you see a disproportionate amount of mortality from things like cardiovascular disease – young men in their 20s and 30s who come in after suffering massive strokes because of untreated hypertension or who have failing kidneys related to untreated diabetes,” Reyes said. “This is not an area that has been pursued yet with the same kind of rigor and resources as say, HIV, TB, or malaria. So perhaps this is a gap I could fill, taking advantage of all of the outstanding clinicians and researchers at UNC with an interest in global health.”

Reyes came to UNC in 2015 from Massachusetts General Hospital. While there, she was a site director for MGH’s global health program in Uganda, giving her firsthand experience with these issues.

Reyes said she has long been moved by a commitment to helping those in poverty. After her undergraduate studies at Harvard, she thought she would exclusively pursue work in health policy, but time spent with migrant workers and Southeast Asian refugees in California convinced her of the impact she could make as a clinician. Still, she closely studies the systems of health care delivery and remains committed to ensuring quality care for all.

“It’s not easy to marry policy and clinical work, but they inform each other, and so it’s important to integrate the two sides when possible,” Reyes said. “Where that manifests for me is my interest in seeing and studying methods and policies that work and studying the most effective ways to put them into practice.”

Reyes is thankful to have been honored as a Simmons Scholar, saying the honor was unexpected.

“I feel very fortunate that people see enough value in my work to support me through this Simmons Scholars program,” Reyes said. “I’m also excited about the opportunity to get plugged into the community of other Simmons Scholars, and see what we can all learn from each other.”

Damaris Lorenzo, Ph.D.:

Damaris Lorenzo joined the faculty in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology only a few weeks ago, so she’s especially thankful that the support of the Simmons Scholars program will allow her to focus on her research during a typically chaotic time of getting settled into the rhythms of a new work environment.

“As a faculty member, there are many important responsibilities and things to attend to, but my research is of the highest priority and the thing that I love doing the most,” Lorenzo said. “So, to have the support to focus on that from the start is a unique opportunity that I’m very thankful for.”

Lorenzo – who recently completed her postdoctoral work at Duke – was already familiar with much of the outstanding research being done at UNC. She said she was drawn to the collaborative nature of the faculty at UNC and the ability to pursue her research interests which span human genetics, cell biology, and physiology. Since her arrival, UNC has lived up to her expectations.

“I have found so many people who are interested in my work and want to talk about my science and how we might work together,” Lorenzo said. “There is a spirit of collaboration here rather than competition.”

Lorenzo’s research focuses on the ankyrin and spectrin families of cytoskeletal-associated proteins, which have critical cellular functions in virtually every tissue in humans. Although Lorenzo studies the roles of these proteins in basic cellular mechanisms, she is most interested in understanding how their deficiencies can cause disease. Lorenzo recently found that some ankyrin mutations cause obesity and diabetes in mice.

“I have found so many people who are interested in my work and want to talk about my science and how we might work together,” Lorenzo said. “There is a spirit of collaboration here rather than competition.”

“We studied these particular mutations because they are found in different ethnic groups at frequencies as high as 8 percent, literarily in millions of Americans,” Lorenzo stressed. “Our next step is to try to learn how people carrying these mutations may be affected.”

Lorenzo also investigates the roles of ankyrins and spectrins in brain development and neurological disease. According to Lorenzo, genetic screenings have identified mutations in these proteins as a potential cause of autism, bipolar disorder, epilepsy and schizophrenia.

“Similarly to diabetes, these are all very complex, difficult to manage and often devastating diseases, for which effective treatments remain elusive” Lorenzo said. “UNC has an incredible community of researchers and clinicians making great progress in the field of neurodevelopmental disorders, so I am eager to collaborate with these groups.”

The Simmons Scholars program is available to all SOM faculty members from a population underrepresented in the medical field relative to the general population. Faculty members who meet the eligibility requirements may be nominated by their department chair.