Monday, April 1, 2024

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) is honoring 11 faculty and staff for their exceptional contributions to research, scholarship, and creative activity as part of the 2024 Discovery and Innovation Awards.

The winners represent the best and the brightest of our University of Iowa faculty and staff, who are making an impact across a range of disciplines,” said Marty Scholtz, vice president for research. “Their research and scholarship enhance undergraduate and graduate education on campus, and their efforts to expand the frontiers of discovery betters our community, state, and world.”

The OVPR solicited nominations from across campus for the awards, which include: Scholar of the Year, Early Career Scholar of the Year, Leadership in Research, and awards that recognize achievement in communicating scholarship with public audiences, community engagement, arts and humanities, mentorship, research administration and safety. A campuswide event on April 30 will celebrate the winners.

Faculty Awards

Jun Wang

Jun Wang, James E. Ashton Professor and interim departmental executive officer in the College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, is the 2024 Scholar of the Year. The award celebrates nationally recognized recent achievement in outstanding research, scholarship, and/or creative activities. 

Wang’s research centers on the development of novel remote sensing techniques to characterize aerosols and fires from space. He serves as the University of Iowa’s lead investigator on NASA’s TEMPO, Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution, which Time magazine named one of its best inventions of 2023. 

“Professor Wang's scholarly endeavors over the past two years stand out as a paradigm of excellence, serving as an exemplary model for both emerging and seasoned faculty members to aspire toward,” said Karim Abdel-Malek, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Iowa Technology Institute.

James Byrne

James Byrne, assistant professor of radiation oncology in the Carver College of Medicine (CCOM), is the 2024 Early Career Scholar of the Year. The award honors assistant professors who are currently involved in research, scholarship, and/or creative activity and show promise of making a significant contribution to their field. 

As a physician scientist, Byrne continues to care for patients while developing novel biomedical therapies for cancer, finding inspiration in everything from latte foam to tardigrades. In his first two years as faculty at the UI, he has earned more that $2.5M in external research funding, including a K08 award from the NIH.

“Dr. Byrne’s scientific creativity stems from both an active and curious mind as well as his ability to bridge diverse fields from engineering to biology to medicine,” said Michael Henry, professor and interim director of the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. “These interdisciplinary boundaries are where some of the most interesting and important work is happening today.”

Donna Santillan

Donna Santillan, research professor and director of the Division of Reproductive Science Research in the CCOM Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, received the Leadership in Research Award, which recognizes research and scholarly accomplishments throughout a career. 

While Santillan’s research has spanned across the field of reproductive science, she has a particular interest in the deadly diseases of pregnancy, including preeclampsia and its intergenerational effects. She designed and directs the Women’s Health Tissue Repository. Santillan’s work has been cited more than 2,700 times, and she has mentored 114 early career scientists and students, a testament to her expansive impact.

“Dr. Santillan has consistently demonstrated an unwavering commitment to fostering the professional and personal development of trainees in research, including myself,” said Banu Gumusoglu, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology. “Her mentorship extends beyond the confines of traditional academic settings, touching the lives of many aspiring trainees from high school through residency, clinical fellowship, and faculty levels.”

Stephen Warren

Stephen Warren, professor of history and American studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), received the Distinguished Achievement in Publicly Engaged Research Award. The award recognizes an individual faculty member who has put addressing public needs and direct engagement with the public, in the service of improving quality of life through research, at the forefront of his or her academic activities.

A prolific scholar of Native American culture, Warren’s research has centered on the Shawnee people of Oklahoma for the past two decades. He has published four books and co-authored the most recent one, Replanting Cultures: Community-Engaged Scholarship in Indian Country, with Chief Benjamin Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe. 

“Over the last two decades, Professor Warren has established himself as a leading community-engaged scholar, and his achievements in research and publishing demonstrate that community engagement and strong scholarship are not mutually exclusive,” said Nick Benson, director of the Office of Community Engagement. “Professor Warren’s work serves as an inspiration for researchers at Iowa and nationally who seek not only to make a difference in academia, but also in our communities.”

Kaveh Akbar

Kaveh Akbar, associate professor of English in CLAS, received the Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Humanities Research Award. This award honors distinguished achievement in humanities scholarship and work in the creative, visual and performing arts. 

Akbar joined Iowa in 2022 to serve as the director of the English and creative writing major. In January, his new novel, Martyr!, was published to critical acclaim. Akbar previously published two prize-winning poetry collections and has served as poetry editor for The Nation since 2021. 

“Akbar’s leadership in the profession and on campus continues: his transformative work in our department not only enriches the academic experiences of 700+ English and creative writing majors, but also enhances the profile of UI as ‘The Writing University,’” said Blaine Greteman, professor and departmental executive officer of the Department of English.

Cara Hamann

Cara Hamann, associate professor of epidemiology, received the Faculty Communicating ideas Award. This award recognizes excellence in communication about research and scholarship in the sciences and humanities and the study of creative, visual, and performing arts to a general audience directly or via print and electronic media.

Hamann has frequently shared her work on transportation issues, including teen driving, bike and scooter safety, and pedestrian safety, through peer-reviewed journals and extensive media outreach. Her recent op-ed, “The most deadly traffic policy you’ve never heard of leaves you vulnerable, too,” drew widespread attention to a legal loophole in crosswalk laws and appeared in more than 50 news outlets nationwide, including USA Today.

“Dr. Hamann’s work is not only academically rigorous but also accessible and impactful to a

wide audience,” said Diane Rohlman, associate dean for research in the College of Public Health. “Her ability to communicate with clarity, creativity, and passion coupled with her extensive media outreach, exemplifies how she utilizes multiple approaches to address transportation challenges impacting society.”

Bob McMurray and Caroline Clay

Bob McMurray, F. Wendell Miller Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and Caroline Clay, assistant professor of acting in the Department of Theatre Arts, were recipients of the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) Distinguished Mentor Awards. The awards honors mentors’ dedication to making their students research experiences successful.

“I can’t imagine my research journey without Bob’s welcoming kindness, thriving lab community, and confident mentorship, and I am so deeply grateful for his impact on me,” said Hannah Franke, a psychology and linguistics major mentored by McMurray.

“I know I am far from the only student whose life has been impacted by Caroline Clay,” said Isabella Hohenadel, a second-year theatre arts major. “She deserves to be recognized of all of the wonderful work she does and how much she cares about us as students. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of recognition than her.”

Staff Awards

Angie Robertson

Angie Robertson, department administrator for CCOM’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, received the Distinguished Research Administrator Award. The award recognizes staff members who performed exceptional service in support of research at the UI by exploring funding opportunities, assisting in grant proposal preparation, submission, post-award administration, and operational support. 

In addition to overseeing every aspect of daily operations for the department, Robertson manages nearly 100 research grants for the department and three longstanding NIH T32 training grants. 

“Angie plays a leading role in our department office, inspiring us to achieve all aspects of our missions,” said Li Wu, professor and department chair. “She is innovative, collaborative, accountable, and respectful in her daily work. She exceeds any expectations and sets a great example for staff members in the department.”

Min Zhu

Min Zhu, research specialist in the Iowa Institute for Oral Health Research (IIOHR) within the College of Dentistry, received the Distinguished Research Professional Award. The award recognizes staff members who performed exceptional service in support of research at the UI by conducting experiments, collecting, and analyzing results and performing operational duties associated with a laboratory or research program. 

Zhu has worked as a lab bench scientist in the College of Dentistry since 2006, executing experimental work for grants and other research, working closely with IIOHR faculty members, overseeing lab maintenance and environmental health and safety efforts. 

“Beyond her research skills, Dr. Zhu has been an exceptional mentor and educator for my students and other junior researchers,” said Liu Hong, professor of prosthodontics. “Her kindness and willingness to share her knowledge have made her a beloved figure among them.”


Curtis Iburg, manager of sterilization services in the College of Dentistry, received the Innovation in Safety Award, which celebrates exceptional and ground-breaking innovations that advance safety at the UI. Iburg led a major renovation of the College of Dentistry’s instrument processing and sterilization area, with the aim of encouraging better workflow and support for future growth. 

“His innovations in workspace are a valuable asset to the greater University and demonstrates that the most important people to be involved in a space renovation are those that use the area because they can see how the facility can better function and how it can be designed for future needs,” said Kecia Leary, associate dean of clinics.