Amber U. Luong, MD, PhD, celebrated her 10th anniversary as a faculty member of the Department of Otorhinolaryngology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. Now an associate professor, Dr. Luong joined the department as an assistant professor to establish its translational science program.
In less than a decade, she built a translational otorhinolaryngology research program from the ground up. “We gave her a very big task, starting from literally nothing,” says Martin J. Citardi, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at McGovern Medical School. “Today our program includes basic science, translational science, and clinical trials. Dr. Luong is a busy clinician with a tertiary academic practice and she also participates actively in teaching our residents and fellows.”
As a child growing up in an extended family of physicians, Dr. Luong developed an avid interest in medicine. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s, as an undergraduate biology major at Trinity University in San Antonio, that her interest in research blossomed. “Polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which could amplify copies of a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude, had been developed less than a decade earlier,” Dr. Luong says. “I was a young college student using PCR to generate copies of DNA sequences and studying them. That was a big wow for me.”
She was accepted to the Summer Undergraduate Research Program at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where she worked under two Nobel laureates, Michael S. Brown, MD, and Joseph L. Goldstein, MD. “I thought, here are two physicians who evolved from caring for individual patients to acquiring new knowledge that will help hundreds of patients,” she says. “For the first time I understood that you can design a medical career that combines clinical medicine and basic science research to create a unique perspective as a clinician and a scientist.”
After graduating summa cum laude from Trinity University, Dr. Luong was accepted to the National Institutes of Health-sponsored Medical Scientist Training Program at UT Southwestern Medical School, where she earned her MD/PhD. Following an internship in general surgery and residency in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the same institution, she completed fellowship training in rhinology and endoscopic skull base surgery at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. There she met Dr. Citardi, who recruited her to his department at McGovern Medical School in September 2009 as director of research. She rose to the rank of tenured associate professor with a joint appointment at the Center of Immunology and Autoimmune Diseases at the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases.
She was the first recruit in a department that now comprises 16 faculty members. “I had an opportunity to do research on epithelial cell-derived cytokines in the lab of Dr. Yong-Jun Liu when he was still at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center,” she says. “I had worked with Dr. Citardi in Cleveland and I liked the idea of creating a research program from scratch. I grew up in Houston, and my family lives here. It was the perfect storm.”
Dr. Luong received the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation Award for distinguished service in 2014; the UTHealth Women Faculty Forum Excellence Award in 2017; the Women in Otolaryngology Helen F. Krause, MD Memorial Trailblazer Award in 2017; the McGovern Medical School Faculty Member of the Year Award for 2017-2018; the American Rhinologic Society Presidential Citation for meritorious service in advancing the cause of diversity and inclusion in 2018; and the Edmund Prince Fowler Award, given by the Triological Society in recognition of excellence in basic science research, in 2019. She was named to Castle Connolly’s list of Exceptional Women in Medicine in 2018.
She was accepted to the 2019-2020 Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine® (ELAM) program, a yearlong, part-time fellowship for women faculty in schools of medicine, dentistry, public health, and pharmacy. The program is dedicated to developing the professional and personal skills required to lead and manage in today’s complex health care environment, with special attention to the challenges facing women in leadership positions.
A requirement of the ELAM fellowship is the creation of an institutional action plan, and Dr. Luong’s plan will focus on the infrastructure needed to expand clinical research opportunities within surgical departments. “I’ve been able to build a basic science and translational research program centered on my interests and then extend it to clinical trials. Building a research program in a surgical department is very challenging,” she says. “How do you encourage surgeons to incorporate clinical research into their academic careers without creating a monetary burden on the department? What support can the institution provide to help cultivate research? When I came here 10 years ago, we were figuring out how to thrive as a department. Now we’re working on including everyone in building the department’s research reputation.”
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