The recipients of the Innovation Award — selected by Tulane Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Robin Forman — were Tony Hu, Tanika Kelly and Nora Lustig. These distinguished researchers talk about the trajectory of the careers, the impact of COVID-19 and their motivation to conduct innovative research to improve the lives of people around the world.
The Innovation Award recognizes scholars/investigators who develop and explore novel ideas, approaches and insights through interdisciplinary scholarship to address clinical, public health or societal challenges.
“The oddest inventions or technology developments happen when you have a clear understanding of what is needed,” said Tony Hu. “We focus on what the need is and then go from there.”
Hu holds the Weatherhead Presidential Chair in Biotechnology Innovation at the School of Medicine. He’s also the director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Diagnosis. He has a primary appointment in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and secondary appointments in the School of Science and Engineering, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and the Tulane National Primate Research Center.
When COVID-19 upended the world in 2020, accurate tests played a vital role in public safety and health initiatives, and they still do. More than 500 million people throughout the world have taken a COVID-19 test. But early in the pandemic, Hu recognized the need for more accurate testing than the popular PCR test.
“PCR-based COVID-19 tests are widely used. They’re done via nasal swabs because the virus actively replicates in the upper respiratory tract immediately after infection, but virus levels in the nose can decrease significantly after initial infection, which can result in false negatives in some patients,” Hu said. “That’s one of the main reasons why my team and I did research to find a solution to this.”
During the height of the pandemic, Hu and his team worked around the clock to develop a highly sensitive test to intensify a genetic fragment of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The blood test has been successful in detecting COVID-19 in some patients who initially tested negative using PCR tests that weren’t sensitive enough.
“Regardless of whatever project I’m working on at any given moment, I always keep in mind why I’m doing it so that I can focus on the real need: How will this research help people and how can I help to make the world a better, safer place to live?”
The critical need for accurate testing during the pandemic revealed the significance of traditional first responders as well as researchers like Hu, who aren’t necessarily seeing patients daily but are doing vital research to defeat COVID-19.
“Most people don’t picture a researcher or scientist when they think of a first responder, but we operated around the clock as essential workers in our research lab at the School of Medicine,” said Hu. “Even though we have protocols in place to keep everyone safe, there’s still risk involved in a situation like this.”
Before becoming a world-renowned researcher, Hu recognized his purpose while attending a research conference in Italy as 37-year-old assistant professor.
“I was at a small conference when I saw this special group of guests walk in and they were all 5- to 9-year-old girls. Since this was a research conference, I didn’t understand why they were there and then someone said to me, ‘All of them are HIV- infected, and they came from Romania as a part of today’s presentation.’”
Hu said this was a pivotal moment in his career.
After going back his hotel that night, he asked himself: “With all of the research I’ve done over the years, is there any piece of knowledge that I can use to help those kids?”
That experience ignited a new passion in Hu that shaped his career and fostered his innovative spirit.
“Regardless of whatever project I’m working on at any given moment, I always keep in mind why I’m doing it so that I can focus on the real need: How will this research help people and how can I help to make the world a better, safer place to live?” Hu said.
Over the last decade, there have been significant advancements in molecular technology, a key component in uncovering biological processes underlying disease, which could ultimately help people live healthier lives.
Tanika Kelly, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and director of the Center for Public Health Genomics, is a leading scientist in the world of genetic epidemiology. Some of her latest projects aim to curb kidney and cardiovascular diseases using next-generation sequencing technology.
“I want to make a difference,” said Kelly. “Chronic kidney disease has been the focus of some of my most recent research. One ongoing project is a whole exome- sequencing study of diabetic kidney disease. Here, we are testing to see whether DNA sequences in any of the 20,000 to 25,000 human genes differ in patients with diabetic kidney disease compared to those without. Identified genes could serve as targets for drug development to treat this condition.”
Kelly’s team leverages innovations in molecular and computational technologies to conduct multiomics research, using sets of biological data, with applications to cardiovascular disease prevention. She said adopting new technologies for discovery is key to innovative research.
“When I was younger, I thought I would be a basic scientist,” said Kelly. “I was really interested in cellular and molecular biology. However, during undergrad, I worked for four years in a maize genetics lab and found that bench science was not my passion. So, I took a couple years off after graduation to figure out what I wanted to do.”
Kelly’s journey to becoming an award-winning genetic epidemiologist was sometimes filled with uncertainty. When her mother suggested she look into a Master of Public Health program, she said her path became more clear.
“I want to make a difference. Chronic kidney disease has been the focus of some of my most recent research.”
“My mom, interestingly, is a nurse focused specifically on HIV patient care,” Kelly said. “She’s retired now, but at the time she worked in grant-funded clinics for a major university in Chicago. PhD students in public health would come into the clinic to work on various research projects. One day, she said to me, ‘You know, you should think about doing a degree in public health. These students always remind me of you.’ And so, I looked into it.”
Kelly went on to earn a MPH and PhD in epidemiology from Tulane and is an avid mentor to students pursuing their doctorates.
“I love working with my PhD students. Training the next generation of researchers to do this work is so important,” Kelly said. “COVID slowed us down a little bit, but my research team is young and ambitious, and mentoring them is one of the most rewarding parts of my work. I’m glad that we were able to push through and move along with our projects despite COVID-19.”
Over the years, Kelly has been awarded millions of dollars in grant funding geared toward genetics research. Her next big project will involve studying the consequences of clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminant potential, a condition that causes an expansion of mutated peripheral blood cells and increases risk for hematologic cancers in patients with chronic kidney disease.
Inequality is a global problem that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nora Lustig, professor of economics at the School of Liberal Arts and holder of the Samuel Z. Stone Chair of Latin American Economics, has spent much of her career trying to lessen inequities through studying the dynamics of economic inequality and poverty and proposing public policies that are most effective in combating unfairness.
Lustig migrated from Argentina to the United States with her family as a teenager. The contrast in living standards between her home country and the U.S. made her decide to study economics at the University of California–Berkeley, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree and PhD. Due to the high out-of-state fees, she first attended a junior college that was 80% African American at the time.
“This experience opened my eyes to the inequities embedded in the U.S. that affect the African American and Latino populations. I certainly saw the American dream, but I also saw the American nightmare from day one. That reinforced my interest in studying inequality.”
Lustig, an internationally renowned scholar of global inequity, has been at Tulane for 12 years. During her time at the university, her research has expanded to include fiscal redistribution analyses in low- and middle-income countries around the world. She’s also the founding director of the Commitment to Equity Institute (CEQI), a project she began in 2008. The institute is committed to reducing inequality and poverty through tax and benefit incidence analysis, and active engagement with the policy community. Lustig and her team have completed studies on 62 countries, including the whole Latin American region and many countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
“COVID-19 put a strain on many communities around the world that were already vulnerable to begin with. ... We hope our research will trigger policy actions worldwide to contain these unequalizing effects.”
“My hope is that more countries take advantage of the handbook we published to serve as a guide for estimating the impact of fiscal policy on inequality and poverty and for implementing pro-poor policymaking,” she said.
The 800-page guide provides a step-by-step method called the CEQ method that can be used to determine the extent to which fiscal policy reduces inequality and poverty in a particular country. The adoption in 2020 of the CEQ indicator of fiscal redistribution by the United Nations is an important validation of the relevance and timeliness of the institute’s work.
“We definitely want to work with more countries and engage in new partnerships that will allow our data center to become sustainable,” said Lustig.
More than $7 million in grant funds have been dedicated to helping the institute achieve its goals, including a recent $1 million donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of this grant is to study COVID-19’s effects on inequality and poverty.
“COVID-19 put a strain on communities around the world that were already vulnerable to begin with,” said Lustig. “School closures will result in growing educational gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children and exacerbate inequality. We hope our research will trigger policy actions worldwide to contain these unequalizing effects.” Hopefully, the world will listen and act fast.