The American Society for Clinical Investigation recognizes three UCLA physician-scientists for their achievements in research

2024 Early-Career Awardees

The American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI) has named three UCLA physician-scientists among its 2024 Early-Career Awardees.

Dr. Quen Cheng, assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases, and Dr. Elizabeth Volkmann, associate professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology were selected to receive the ASCI Young-Physician-Scientist Award (YPSA) for their notable research achievements early in their faculty careers. In addition, Dr. Ching Zhu, a clinical cardiac electrophysiology fellow, was selected for an ASCI Emerging-Generation Award which recognizes post-MD, pre-faculty appointment physician-scientists who are engaged in immersive research.

Volkmann is the founder and co-director of the UCLA Connective Tissue Disease-Related Interstitial Lung Disease (CTD-ILD) Program, and the director of the UCLA Scleroderma Program. As a world-renowned expert in systemic sclerosis and connective tissue disease-related interstitial lung disease. She connects clinical work to bench research through her oversight of clinical trials aimed at testing scleroderma therapies and identifying biomarkers to predict how patients might respond to therapies. Her goal is to further integrate precision medicine into scleroderma treatment so that patients can get more effective treatments sooner.

"When we started out in this research we had very little to offer patients with systemic sclerosis in terms of treatment,” Volkmann said. “Now we have two FDA-approved therapies for systemic sclerosis and six more promising treatment studies ongoing at UCLA. With this comes the possibility of making more informed decisions about what type of therapy works best for each patient."

Cheng is co-director of the UCLA STAR Physician Scientist Training Program. He chose to do his post-graduate training at UCLA largely for the unparalleled support of their physician-scientist program. As part of his fellowship training, he obtained a PhD on signaling, epigenomics, and gene regulation in macrophages. His PhD work led to three first or last-author papers including one in Science. He was given the UCLA Department of Medicine’s Research Innovator award twice and invited to be a speaker at an NIH/NIAID symposium in 2019. 

He has moved toward new research directions, studying the mechanisms of “trained immunity” – how prior infections or cytokine exposures alter macrophage function. He has been awarded NIH grants on this topic as well as on the effect of HIV on trained immunity. 

"I am honored to receive the YPSA,” he said. “I am grateful for the numerous mentors who have poured into me over the years and continue to be my cheerleaders. I am indebted to the training I’ve received at UCLA, and it is an honor to be recognized by the broader physician scientist community."

Through her fellowship, Zhu is completing her advanced training as an electrophysiologist to treat patients with complex arrhythmias, particularly through catheter ablation procedures of the heart. One example of Zhu's unique clinical work is the treatment of atrial fibrillation (a fast and irregular heart beat) with a catheter ablation, now a preferred option to open heart surgery -- the only solution previously available.

Zhu’s bench research builds off of her clinical expertise and involves looking at the nerves within the heart to determine how they control the electrical function of the heart -- and specifically testing ways to modulate the nerve function of the heart in a way that alleviates arrhythmias.

Only 6% of cardiac electrophysiologists are women. Zhu is part of that 6% as one of the less than 200 female electrophysiologists not just nationally, but globally.

"It's a huge honor to be recognized [by ASCI] because this is a society of established physician scientists that I look up to,” Zhu said. “To enter that network is very humbling and is also practically helpful because this award grants access to educational programs specifically for physician scientists."

Founded in 1908, The ASCI is a nonprofit focused on supporting the scientific efforts, educational needs, and clinical aspirations of physician-scientists to improve the health of all people. It convenes annually to consider nominations for several prestigious physician-scientist career awards. As one of the oldest medical honor societies in the US, and one of the few organizations focused on the unique role of physician-scientists across research, clinical practice, and education, receiving an ASCI award is a significant milestone in the career of a physician scientist.