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2016 Chancellors Club professors specialize in genetic disorders, astronomy

Thu, 10/06/2016

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas Medical Center professor and researcher in genetic disorders and a longtime astronomy and physics professor will be honored respectively for their research and teaching by KU Endowment’s Chancellors Club.

Dr. Merlin Butler has been selected as the 2016 Chancellors Club Research Award recipient. Barbara Anthony-Twarog has been selected as the 2016 Chancellors Club Teaching Award recipient. Each will receive a $10,000 award and will be recognized at the Oct. 21 Chancellors Club celebration in Lawrence.

Merlin Butler

Butler, a leading researcher in the rare, genetic obesity-related Prader-Willi syndrome, has been a faculty member at KU Medical Center since 2008 in the departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Pediatrics. He also is the director of the Division of Research and Genetics for the clinical department and the medical director of the Genetics Clinic.

Dr. William Gabrielli Jr. is chair of the psychiatry department and a professor of psychiatry and internal medicine. He said Butler is well-respected for his research accomplishments and in this region of the country for the genetics evaluations he provides for patients. 

“The Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences is privileged, honored and delighted to have Dr. Butler among our faculty,” Gabrielli said. “We believe that more than half of the human genome codes for brain and behavior. Understanding the genetic, epigenetic and proteomic influences on mental illness and individualized medicine will help us move into the next generation of clinical brain science and mental health care. The presence of a world-class genetic scientist in the department can help us move in this direction.”

Butler has invested much of his research career in the delineation of complex genomic mechanisms, specifically in Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS), the most common known cause of life-threatening obesity in children, and in increasing awareness to improve care for those affected with this disorder of genomic imprinting. 

“What I find to be the most rewarding part of my work, and in which I am the most proud as a researcher, is the positive changes made in translational research, in treating and caring for patients with rare genetic conditions, and in being a small part of improving their quality of life and outcome,” Butler said. “What we have contributed to the study of PWS has led to the discovery of new genetic principles and concepts in the field of medical genetics by the characterization of a new class of genetic defects that play a role in development, cancer and aging.”

Career highlights

  • Butler’s research in the 1980s led to an increase in knowledge and understanding in genetics, including the cause and diagnosis of Prader-Willi syndrome. Butler was the first to characterize differences in chromosome staining properties in families with PWS; he found that chromosome 15 donated by the father led to chromosome deletion in the child. A similar deletion was found when the chromosome came from the mother, though it resulted in Angelman syndrome. This research led to a new discovery in genetics referred to as genomic imprinting.

“These discoveries began his pursuit to unravel the genetic mystery behind the causes and unusual mode of transmission underlying these syndromes,” wrote Ann Manzardo in her nomination letter. Manzardo is associate professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at KU Medical Center.

  • He is chairperson of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association (USA) and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from that organization in 2008.
  • Butler is prolific in publishing about his research. He has published more than 400 research articles and multiple book chapters, and he has edited several journal issues and two textbooks. Among his published works is a standardized growth chart for PWS infants and children with and without growth hormone, published in 2015 in the journal Pediatrics, which serves as a guideline for growth hormone treatment in PWS.

Barbara Anthony-Twarog

A faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy since 1982, Barbara Anthony-Twarog is accustomed to breaking new ground. She was among the first women to graduate from the University of Notre Dame in physics, she was the first woman on the faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at KU, and she was the only woman in the department for the first 11 years of her career at the university. 

Since arriving at KU, Anthony-Twarog has taught everything the astronomy program has to offer, from large introductory classes to specialized courses such as Astrophysics 692, which focuses on stellar evolution. And with every class, she demonstrates an exemplary ability to teach, mentor and advise students, young faculty and staff.

In his nomination letter, Hume Feldman, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said Anthony-Twarog is a perfect example of what it means to be a teacher, mentor and leader at KU. This reflects her ability to support, encourage and enable students, young faculty and staff, as well as to engage the public.

“Observing Professor Anthony-Twarog for almost two decades, I am constantly amazed (and impressed) by her incredible drive and diligence in support of educating our students and the general public and working toward their well-being,” Feldman said. “Her dedication to promoting knowledge and helping those who seek it is nothing short of magical.”

Anthony-Twarog appreciates the opportunity to guide students and give them tools for learning for the rest of their lives.

“I share with other science faculty at KU the task of helping students tackle something they expect to be hard. Studying a natural science takes discipline, but many fields of endeavor are difficult,” she said. “Part of what we teach, and perhaps one of its most valuable aspects, is becoming comfortable with making and learning from mistakes.”

Career highlights

  • In addition to receiving the Kemper Award and her department’s Undergraduate Teaching Award, she has been inducted into the Kansas Women’s Hall of Fame and appeared on KU’s Women of Distinction calendar.
  • The University of Notre Dame, Anthony-Twarog’s alma mater, recognized her with its Women’s Award of Achievement in 1995.
  • She has advised countless undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom she continues to mentor well beyond their careers at KU. She has also mentored and advised most of the Department of Physics and Astronomy faculty, especially other female faculty members.

Jacquelynne Milingo, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Gettysburg College, wrote in her letter of support that Anthony-Twarog’s small gestures, things as simple as an office chat, made a difference in Milingo’s educational experience and in helping her succeed.

“At the time I certainly never considered what she sacrificed to give me her patience, her time and her energy,” Milingo wrote. “I don’t know to this day if she fully appreciates how significant those moments were in nurturing and cultivating me as a student, a professional and a human being.” 

The Chancellors Club, formed in 1977 by KU Endowment, recognizes both donors of major gifts designated for specific purposes on any of KU’s campuses and annual donors to the Greater KU Fund.

KU Endowment is the independent, nonprofit organization serving as the official fundraising and fund-management organization for KU. Founded in 1891, KU Endowment was the first foundation of its kind at a U.S. public university.



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