President Giuseppe Colasurdo presents a Presidential Scholar Award to Dr. John Byrne.
President Giuseppe Colasurdo presents a Presidential Scholar Award to Dr. John Byrne.

For Raul Caetano, it was he as a 16-year-old idly leafing through a book by Freud. For John Byrne, it was watching his mentor, a future Nobel laureate, humbly practice his lectures in front of his own lab group. Caetano would go on to combine psychiatry and epidemiology to become the nation’s foremost expert in alcohol-related border health disparities research. Byrne would practice the ideals inherent to mentorship and use science as a template for learning how to teach.

This year’s UTHealth President’s Scholar Awards for Research and Teaching, held May 12, honored Dr. John Byrne, professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy for excellence in teaching and Dr. Raul Caetano, regional dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health Dallas Regional Campus, for excellence in research.

“This is the 20th anniversary of these most prestigious awards, and it is fitting that these two distinguished scholars and educators were selected, given their outstanding contributions,” said Dr. Giuseppe Colasurdo, president of UTHealth. “These awards have a special meaning because the recipients are nominated by their peers and are recognized by those who have achieved a level of excellence in discovery and education.”

Award for Excellence in Teaching

“Like most faculty in basic science departments in medical schools, I came to education from a background of research…without having any formal training in education theory,” said Byrne, who in 1999 received the President’s Scholar Award for excellence in research.

He credits the scientific method and research process itself as being the ideal template for learning how to teach.  “One of the most basic things we do as scientists is to describe the results of our research in scientific publications… boring though the formula may appear,” Byrne said.  But, engaging, accessible communications skills, along with “practice, practice, practice” and finding exceptional mentors who foster the honor in being part of the “academy of educators” will serve to hone one’s pedagogical skill.

Though Byrne’s work is world-renowned in the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in learning and memory, his contributions to graduate and medical education are approaching equal recognition through his influential textbook, From Molecules to Networks: An Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience, now in its third edition (in press). His most recent innovative approach to teaching is the development of an electronic interactive textbook, Neuroscience Online, which has been viewed by learners in every state, and this year, reached more than one million visits. His education awards include the Education Award from the Society for Neuroscience (2007) and The University of Texas System Innovation in Health Science Education Award (2012).

Byrne earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute where he would meet and later train under Dr. Eric Kandel, at Columbia University, “a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a future Nobel laureate who still practiced lectures to his lab group,” Byrne said.

Byrne included two others in the memorably good company of Kandel. He lauded mentor Dr. Ernst Knobil, then-chairman of physiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and 20 years later, dean of McGovern Medical School, for inspiring Byrne to see “teaching, not as a burden, but as a privilege.” He praised Dr. Stanley Schultz, then-chair of McGovern Medical School’s Department of Physiology and Cell Biology and dean of the Medical School, 2004-06, for teaching Byrne that “a pair of charged molecules moving sequentially at the same speed though a membrane channel” could be fodder for stand-up comedy—and therefore a lesson forever learned.

Award for Research

Caetano’s epidemiological research is on alcohol use disorders with a particular focus on alcohol-related health disparities across ethnic groups and sub-groups. After completing medical school in his native Rio de Janeiro, he trained in London at the Institute of Psychiatry in an advanced program in the epidemiology of mental illness, “and it was a transformation,” Caetano said in his remarks, “and I decided that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”

He and his UTHealth colleagues were the first to describe gender- and age-related associations of drinking and heavy drinking that are present only among middle-age Hispanic men, which helped explain the high rate of cirrhosis and cirrhosis death in this group.

His longitudinal research showed the variations in heavy drinking patterns among different ethnic groups and the alcohol-related problems that arose in these groups, with attention on intimate partner violence and the drinking-associated patterns that emerged.

His work along the Texas-Mexico border has been described as stellar by his nominators and his longitudinal work in Puerto Rico before and after its dramatic economic downturn has positioned him as one of the nation’s top lead researchers in alcohol-related health disparities. Among his many awards, Caetano is a recipient of one of the highest honors the National Institutes of Health gives to an investigator—the Method to Extend Research in Time Award — a MERIT award.

In 19 years of study, Caetano has received $22 million for the NIH in alcohol epidemiology, $12 million since his arrival at UTHealth, resulting in 228 papers, 22 book chapters among other written works.

Caetano counts “coming to Texas as one of the best professional decisions in my life.”

For more information about the UTHealth President’s Scholar Awards, please visit

-Karen Kaplan, Office of Public Affairs