Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte seated at long conference table

Turning Point

Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte, vice president for research, is leading Tulane toward a new era of impactful research that makes lives better.

Above photo: Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte, vice president for research (by Paula Burch-Celentano)


When Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte, the new vice president of research, was asked, what is the goal of research? he said, “That’s easy: to improve the life of people.”

Everything that Tulane researchers do is focused on making “this very fragile primate (humans) have the most fulfilling, happy and healthy life possible,” he said.

Piedimonte, a distinguished pediatric pulmonologist, joined Tulane this fall from the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, where he held the Steven and Nancy Calabrese Endowed Chair for Excellence in Pediatric Care. 

At the announcement of Piedimonte’s appointment to Tulane, President Mike Fitts and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Robin Forman issued a joint statement: “Dr. Piedimonte is an internationally renowned physician, researcher and healthcare executive. He brings to Tulane a passion for impactful research of all forms, and a special interest in collaborations that bring together scholars from disparate perspectives and areas of expertise. We are confident that his appointment will ensure that Tulane, which has been responsible for world-changing discoveries and innovations in areas that range from heart surgery and infectious diseases to coastal science and Maya archaeology, will play an increasingly prominent role in expanding our understanding of the world around us and improving the lives of people around the globe.”

Piedimonte received his medical degree from the University of Rome School of Medicine in Italy, completed his residency in pediatrics at the University of California–San Francisco, and received fellowship training at the Cardiovascular Research Institute of the University of California–San Francisco and the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. He also received training in healthcare management and managed care and capitation from the University of Miami School of Business; training in health policy and management from Harvard School of Public Health; training in healthcare finance and accounting from Baldwin Wallace University; and training in population health from Thomas Jefferson University.

Piedimonte’s research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for more than 30 years and he has been principal investigator or co-investigator on more than 40 research projects. As an administrator, he’ll lead the research enterprise at Tulane, which received $137 million in funding for sponsored projects from the NIH and other external agencies in fiscal year 2018.

Piedimonte will also continue his own NIH-funded research at Tulane. His research has investigated respiratory infections, particularly in children. Lately, however, he’s looking into the developmental origins of health and disease by studying the effects of a mother’s illness, nutrition, environment and emotional state on the baby while in the womb — and after the child is born. 

“More and more, we understand that almost anything that a mother experiences, in one way or another, is going to affect the fetus,” said Piedimonte. “A lot of our fate, medically speaking, but not only medically speaking, is determined before we are born.”

Piedimonte is pleased to bring his investigations that involve biomedical engineering, environmental studies and infectious disease research, as well as medicine, to the interdisciplinary setting at Tulane. 

He’d like other Tulane researchers to know: “I am one of them.”



In late September — when Piedimonte had been on the job for three weeks — he talked about his vision for Tulane research. He sat in his light-and-art–filled office on the sixth floor of the Boggs Center in the ByWater Institute suite on the uptown campus. He has an office on the downtown campus, too, and he’d just attended a ByWater Institute meeting held at the Tulane River and Coastal Center on the banks of the Mississippi River. The “common thread” at the gathering, Piedimonte said, was that “things that are important to New Orleans are important to the entire globe.”

Forty faculty members, deans and senior administrators discussed coastal ecosystems and other issues on which the ByWater Institute is currently focused. If the sea level rises two centimeters, “New Orleans is going to have a big problem, but so will Copenhagen or Venice, or many other urban areas populated by millions of human beings,” said Piedimonte.

Piedimonte wants to expand the ByWater Institute’s focus to more areas of environmental safety, like pollution. “In my mind,” he said, “the ByWater Institute can become one of the leading comprehensive centers of environmental research in the United States.”

“Things that are important to New Orleans are important to the entire globe.”

Giovanni Piedimonte, vice president for research

The Tulane National Primate Research Center, located on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Covington, is also among the university’s most strategically important research centers, said Piedimonte. “There is a unique opportunity to do research at the Primate Center, which continues to be one of the best in the country.” 

The Tulane National Primate Research Center is one of seven National Institutes of Health–funded National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs), which form a “network “dedicated to finding causes, preventions, treatments and cures for infectious diseases and chronic conditions that affect the lives of people and animals worldwide.”

Piedimonte expects the impact of research at the Primate Center to “grow soon and rapidly.” A factor in the importance of infectious disease research is the continual emergence of new germs all around the planet, said Piedimonte. “It is quite possible at a certain point we are going to have to deal with pathogens that either we know, but we cannot fight anymore, or new pathogens that we didn’t know anything about.” 

Antibiotics have combatted infectious diseases such as pneumonia and increased life expectancy well beyond 40–50 years, which was the norm as late as the 1930s in the United States. But now “the use and abuse of antibiotics are creating superbugs that are going to be increasingly difficult to fight,” said Piedimonte. Antibiotic-resistant superbugs present a big challenge. And new germs — similar to the 1918 Spanish influenza virus, which caused the biggest rise in the mortality rate in history — “are a threat to the entire humanity.”

Among the research efforts at the Primate Center, investigators are working on vaccines against Ebola and Zika, viruses that have resulted in recent devastating epidemics. They are developing drugs to treat exposure to the toxin ricin, a potential bioterrorism agent. And they are finding methods to combat the continuing scourge of tuberculosis. 

People are living longer, thanks to advances in infectious diseases treatment. But with longer life, “they have time to get sick for diabetes, for hypertension,” said Piedimonte. The increase in chronic pathologies in the population can be tied to longer life expectancy. 

“It’s good that people live longer, but we want them to be healthy while they age,” said Piedimonte, pointing to other research centers at Tulane that he envisions will grow significantly: the Brain Institute and the Center for Aging. Through these centers, researchers address central nervous system degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s and examine tools that allow people to maintain the functionality of the nervous system as they get older.

“There is incredible research going on across all nine schools at Tulane,” said Piedimonte. As examples, he mentions School of Social Work Dean Patrick Bordnick’s research into virtual reality technology to cope with addictions and School of Liberal Arts Professor of English Michael Kuczynski’s investigation of medieval manuscripts.

Louisiana coast near Isle de Jean Charles, Zika virus, text in book: A Glossed Wycliffite Psalter
Research at Tulane ranges over many areas. Top, left: The Louisiana coast near Isle de Jean Charles is a focus of the ByWater Institute. (Photo by Paul Morse) Center: The Zika virus is detectable in the brain of an infected macaque primate in the investigations of Nicholas Maness, research assistant professor. (Courtesy Tulane National Primate Research Center) Right: Oxford, MS Bodley 554, fol. 76v. From A Glossed Wycliffite Psalter, 2 vols. (Oxford University Press, 2018–19), by Professor of English Michael Kuczynski. (Courtesy Bodleian Libraries, Oxford)

Piedimonte plans to foster collaboration among researchers whose worlds may look distant. It is synergy that he’s hoping will be sparked. From his three decades doing research, he is convinced that “great research comes from the combination of experiences that are as different as possible. When you put together an engineer and a medical doctor, when you put together a public health specialist and somebody who is interested in literature, that’s when new and standard-breaking research is created.”

Piedimonte’s No. 1 goal is “to bring together people with different talent, with different backgrounds, with different knowledge to basically answer the questions that cannot be answered by the individual specialties.”

“Great research comes from the combination of experiences that are as different as possible.”

Giovanni Piedimonte, vice president for research

The enthusiasm that Piedimonte has encountered on all the campuses of Tulane is “palpable,” he said. It’s as if research activities at the university are in a “primordial soup that is simmering.” 

“If we are able to bring these elements together, the effect is going to be an incredible growth in our research mission, which is essential because that is a fundamental mission of Tulane.”

Tulane is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an elite group of high-research universities (60 in the United States and two in Canada) that are invested in the improvement of humanity through research.

Piedimonte sees that all the pieces are in place for “exponential growth” in research to occur at Tulane. 

“All the ingredients — talent, facilities, energy and forward-thinking leadership — are here for the dawn of a new era of research,” he said. 

“My goal is to try to bring these ingredients together, like an enzyme, to create a reaction, to make Tulane one of the best institutions in the country.”

A favorite book of Piedimonte’s is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. (Gladwell, by the way, is scheduled to participate in the New Orleans Book Festival on campus in March. See “Reading Is Fun,” on page 32.) According to The Tipping Point, the phenomena of transformations, such as water reaching the boiling point, don’t follow linear paths. Rather, “there is a point in their growth when they start to grow exponentially,” said Piedimonte. 

The tipping point comes about after “a certain process goes on a steady pace, and then all of a sudden, when the environmental conditions are ideal, exponential growth occurs.”

This inflection point, he said — the tipping point — is where Tulane is right now.