David W. Ussery, Ph.D., director of the Arkansas Center for Genomic and Epidemiology and Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), was invested Feb. 21 as the inaugural recipient of the Helen Adams & Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA) Endowed Chair in Biomedical Informatics.
Ussery, who has worked with bacterial genomics since 1995, joined UAMS in May.
An endowed chair is among the highest academic honors a university can bestow on a faculty member and is established with gifts of at least $1 million, which are invested and the proceeds used to support the educational, research and clinical activities of the chair holder. Those named to a chair are among the most highly regarded scientists, physicians and professors in their fields.
Biomedical informatics uses computational approaches to assess and analyze large sets of medical and public health data for patient care and research programs, including sequence information such as genetics and genomic data.
Ussery’s genome sequencing work, using low-cost, high-output technology has some exciting potential applications for a range of emerging infections. Ussery and his team are collaborating with the Arkansas Department of Health to sequence outbreaks for mumps, the Zika virus, and the flu; his group is also collaborating with many clinicians to analyze genome and microbiome data from patients at UAMS.
“Dave Ussery is a world-class scholar whose work with biomedical informatics and comparative genomics is already giving us critical insight into the origin and treatment of disease,” said UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn, M.D. “The Arkansas Research Alliance was instrumental in the recruitment of Dr. Ussery and the establishment of this chair, and along with the support of the late Mrs. Adams, his work will continue to flourish at UAMS.”
Ussery was presented with a commemorative medallion by Rahn and UAMS Executive Vice Chancellor and Dean of the College of Medicine Pope L. Moseley, M.D.
“This is a great personal honor, both for myself and the department as a whole,” said Ussery. “We want to make Arkansas a national leader in making big data clinically accessible. By better understanding genome sequences, we can more effectively determine where outbreaks originate and how they can be treated.”
This is the first endowed chair for the College of Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Informatics, which was elevated in 2015 from a free-standing division with only a few people, to a full department that now has 24 faculty and 20 staff members.
UAMS provided $500,000 toward the chair, using a bequest from Helen Adams, and the ARA provided the other $500,000 as part of its ARA Scholars program to attract highly respected researchers to Arkansas to stimulate innovation and economic opportunity.
Helen Adams was a 1929 graduate of the University of Arkansas and co-owner with her husband, Roy Adams, of a Fayetteville flower shop. On her death in 2004, Helen Adams left a generous bequest to UAMS to support medical research.
“Helen Adams was a visionary who understood the importance and power of research to improve the lives of Arkansans,” said Moseley. “Her generous gift represents a major investment in the future health and economic development of the state.”
Ussery was named the state’s ninth ARA Scholar in a September ceremony at the State Capitol. Scholars are chosen through a rigorous vetting and review process conducted by an external advisory committee.
The ARA, along with UAMS, is a participating member in the Arkansas Bioinformatics Consortium, which aims to develop and leverage collaborations supporting statewide bioinformatics research.
Jerry Adams, ARA president and CEO, praised the “exciting work” that UAMS is doing in bioinformatics and highlighted Ussery.
“Dr. Ussery’s leadership and vision are perfectly focused to grow the Arkansas Bioinformatics Consortium and apply to the growing emphasis the state is developing around data analytics,” said Adams.
Other speakers at the ceremony were Fred W. Prior, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics, and Søren Brunak, Prof. Ph.D., research program director of disease systems biology at the University of Copenhagen, and founder and group leader of the Center for Biological Sequence Analysis at the Technical University of Denmark.
“I can think of no one more qualified for the inaugural chair of biomedical informatics than Dr. Ussery,” said Prior. “David brings a lot of knowledge, enthusiasm and excitement to our department.”
Before joining UAMS, Ussery was the Comparative Genomics Group lead at Oak Ridge National Labs in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Before that he was at the Technical University of Denmark for more than 15 years, where he worked directly with Brunak.
“It is a great pleasure to see Dave given this chair,” said Brunak. “Dave brought biology and evolution into the picture for our university, which was something we lacked. He can really transform a department into something lively and productive.”
Ussery’s research group has published more than 150 papers since 2000, including two papers that have been cited more than 1,000 times. He has been a co-applicant on grants totaling more than $30 million since 2010.
Ussery, a native of Springdale, received a doctorate in molecular biology from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford University. He earned his master’s degree in biophysical chemistry at the University of New Mexico and his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from William Jewell College. He graduated from Springdale High School in 1978.
His course on comparative microbial genomics, taught at the Technical University of Denmark from 1997-2015 and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville from 2013-2016, will be taught at UAMS this fall. Workshops based on this course have been held in more than a dozen countries. In addition to his close ties with Denmark, Ussery has collaborative projects with groups in the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Spain as well as with many groups in the U.S.