A basic science department in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) has adopted a new name to better represent the expertise of its faculty, research programs and long history of excellent teaching.
The name change for what is now the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology was one of the first initiatives of Teresita Bellido, Ph.D., who began serving as professor and chair in July 2020. The department was previously known as the Department of Physiology and Biophysics.
The change was unanimously supported by the department’s faculty and was approved by Christopher T. Westfall, M.D., executive vice chancellor of UAMS and dean of the College of Medicine, in December.
“Our new name definitely better reflects the identity of our department and the research and teaching we do,” said Bellido. “We are very actively recruiting new faculty members, and we wanted to have a name that truly represents our faculty. This is also important for recruiting graduate students.”
One of seven non-clinical departments in the college, Physiology and Cell Biology and its faculty members work to discover and advance biomedical knowledge that informs health care. Basic science faculty members teach first- and second-year medical students the foundational scientific concepts that are crucial for the practice of medicine. Basic science faculty also teach aspiring scientists in the UAMS Graduate School.
Physiology is the study of how living organisms function, how their tissues and organs interact, and of the underlying mechanisms at the molecular, cellular and organ levels. Cell biology is the study of the structure and function of the cell, which is the basic unit of organismal life. Understanding the basic biology is indispensable for discovering mechanisms of disease and developing therapeutic approaches. Teaching and research by the department’s faculty cover different aspects of physiology and cell biology.
Bellido’s recruitment to UAMS from the Indiana University School of Medicine, announced in 2019, marked a return to what the Argentina native considers her “second home.”
After completing her doctorate in biochemistry and an initial postdoctoral fellowship in Argentina, Bellido continued her training at Indiana University. There, she worked with Stavros Manolagas, M.D., Ph.D., who subsequently recruited her to UAMS following his own recruitment to Arkansas. Bellido served in the UAMS Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism and the UAMS and VA Center for Osteoporosis and Metabolic Bone Diseases (both of which Manolagas continues to lead) from 1993 to 2008, when she was recruited by Indiana University.
Bellido remained focused on her research while at Indiana as her reputation as an international leader in bone and mineral research continued to grow. She served as president of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research (ASBMR) in 2019-2020, overseeing the successful conversion of the organization’s annual meeting to a virtual format as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. Bellido also has been long active in faculty development and mentorship, both at UAMS and Indiana University, earning her leadership awards at Indiana and from ASBMR.
In 2019, the UAMS College of Medicine began recruiting for a new Physiology and Biophysics chair to succeed Michael Jennings, Ph.D., who was stepping down from the role after 25 years of years of service. Bellido realized she was ready to contribute in a leadership capacity and excited about the opportunity at UAMS.
“This was my home and my university home for 15 years, and the prospect of returning was attractive to me,” Bellido said. “UAMS is a great institution with excellent resources for researchers and supportive leadership.”
In addition to her role as department chair, Bellido was named an Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA) Scholar. The ARA is a public/private partnership that supports recruitment and retention of top researchers, with the aim of bolstering jobs and economic opportunity in the state.
“Dr. Bellido really hit the ground running as chair, and her energy and commitment to understanding the needs of her department have been commendable,” said Westfall. “Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, she has succeeded in engaging her faculty and truly listening to them as she guides the department.”
Building on Strengths
Bellido began working to establish strong communication with her administrative team and faculty in the months preceding her full-time start as chair in July 2020. That March, she appointed a faculty committee, headed by Patricia Wight, Ph.D., to help her assess the department’s faculty recruitment needs.
The department has a major role in medical student education at UAMS. Physiology and Cell Biology colleagues teach in numerous courses, and four faculty members, Mike Jennings, Ph.D., Frank Simmen, Ph.D., Jerry Ware, Ph.D., and Herschel Conaway, Ph.D., are course directors for modules taken by first- and second-year medical students. Jennings also serves on the College of Medicine Curriculum Committee and as co-chair of the Active Learning Steering Committee. Faculty members are also integral to graduate student education at UAMS, with Rosalia C.M. Simmen, Ph.D., serving as director of the Cell Biology and Physiology Track for the UAMS Graduate Program in Interdisciplinary Sciences and as a course director, and Patricia Wight, Ph.D., and Vladimir Lupashin, Ph.D., serving as course directors.
Physiology and Cell Biology is the home of the UAMS Advanced Microscopy Core facility, which is directed by Brian Storrie, Ph.D., and serves the needs of researchers from all UAMS colleges as well as outside clients from Arkansas and beyond.
The department is also home to the faculty leaders of Arkansas INBRE, which has received $78.5 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences over the last 20 years to promote and support mentorship-focused biomedical research for undergraduate college students and faculty across the state. Lawrence E. Cornett, Ph.D., serves as principal investigator and director, and Jerry Ware, Ph.D., serves as program coordinator and associate director.
After Dr. Bellido’s recruitment, four faculty members in Physiology and Cell Biology are now contributing to UAMS’ strength in musculoskeletal research. Roy Morello, Ph.D., is an expert in rare bone diseases. Melda Onal, Ph.D., studies gene regulation in bone. Jesús Delgado-Calle, Ph.D., a new recruit recently funded by the National Cancer Institute, studies cancer in bone. Dr. Bellido’s own research spans from osteocyte biology to mechanisms and treatments of bone diseases.
“One of our current strengths is that we have an outstanding group of educators, including senior faculty members who have been teaching for many years,” Bellido said. “We also have strong research programs led by well-established faculty members. However, faculty recruitment is vital for us in order to maintain and build on what we are doing for many decades to come.”
Recruiting is underway for two assistant professors whose research interests will build on existing strengths in the department, including bone biology, intracellular membrane trafficking, platelet physiology, cancer biology and molecular neurobiology. Bellido and her colleagues are particularly interested in recruiting faculty to contribute to the development and expansion of campus-wide centers of excellence in cancer and musculoskeletal biology.
“COVID put the brakes on some of the things we initially wanted to do to jumpstart faculty recruitment last year, but we have been very creative and work around the hurdles of social distancing,” Bellido said, noting that the positions have drawn a flood of applicants who are being interviewed virtually.
“Our faculty and administrative staff are second-to-none,” Bellido said. “I am very excited about what we can accomplish together, and I look forward to growing the department, with the continued support of College of Medicine and UAMS leadership, and to provide opportunities for new faculty members, students and postdoctoral fellows to excel.”