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New director has mind for science, heart for learning

Sara Buckallew • 10/9/19

New director has mind for science, heart for learning

Carmella Evans-Molina, MD, PhD, isn’t kidding when she calls herself a “lifelong learner.”

For Evans-Molina, the newly appointed director of the Center for Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases (CDMD), this pursuit of knowledge has held true in 2019 with an ambitious New Year’s resolution: learning to play piano.

“I wanted to challenge myself to do something new,” Evans-Molina said, proudly sharing that she has already mastered two songs.

“I’m learning a third now, but the base cleft is pretty tricky in this one,” she laughed.

Weekly lessons and practice are packed into an already-full schedule for Evans-Molina. In addition to her duties as director of the CDMD, she spends two half-days a week in the endocrine clinic at the VA Medical Center, sits on multiple leadership and advisory boards, mentors a number of trainees and junior faculty and is leader of the diabetes research program at the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research. Oh, and she has her own successful lab.

Despite her international renown as an expert in beta cell biology, Evans-Molina said she doesn’t mind being a novice. Her recent piano lessons are a befitting metaphor for her love of learning—a methodical progression from scales to sonatas. After all, in science you’re always learning something new.

Embracing the challenge

Evans-Molina didn’t always envision a career for herself in science. But after she graduated from the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University, she discovered a love for bench research while completing an endocrinology fellowship at the University of Virginia.

“I found that I really loved the nuts and bolts of figuring out how a process works,” she said. “It’s invigorating to challenge yourself in the lab. You don’t always succeed, but you always learn. That’s what I love about it.”

Shortly after her arrival at Indiana University School of Medicine in 2008, Evans-Molina started her basic science lab, where her work has focused on intracellular calcium signaling in the pancreatic beta cell. In 2011, Evans-Molina was invited by Linda DiMeglio, MD, to assist on the clinical diabetes research team. There, she began to see science through a new lens.

“Linda’s invitation to become involved in Type 1 diabetes clinical research completely changed my career,” she said.  “Up to that point, I had been happily enmeshed in my basic science.  Now, I was challenged to think about how my research could be translated to improve diabetes prediction and treatment. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity  to develop a new skillset at this point in my career. I also think my experience highlights the outstanding spirit of collaboration that makes our institution so unique.”

A strengthened core

In 2013, Evans-Molina joined a team of diabetes investigators at IU who had a bigger vision.

They pictured a day where scientific progress was enabled by a thriving network of researchers and an environment rich with resources. They sought to unite researchers across the institution and the state of Indiana who have an interest in diabetes-related science, but accomplishing this would require a little help.

They set their sights toward a P30 Diabetes Research Center grant from the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. They knew that this prestigious designation would offer the resources to establish and grow the institutional infrastructure necessary for long-term impact on both the global scientific community and the health of Hoosiers.

Working toward this goal, leaders within the center spearheaded service programs, called cores, that offer access to highly specialized expertise and equipment to CDMD researchers. By enabling scientists to ask sophisticated questions while having access to experts who can help interpret the data, studies can move much faster from the lab to the clinic.

“Our core services allow people to bring something new to their research without having to become an expert in it; we want to be the expert for them,” Evans-Molina said, attributing the cores as a key component to the center’s high level of collaboration and output. “In this way, we have the ability to bring people with different skillsets together to address a common problem.”

In 2015, their efforts paid off as the CDMD became one of only 16 centers nationwide to receive the coveted P30 award from the NIDDK. Since then, the center has grown from about 60 investigators to nearly 100 today.

Core services have another important impact on a flourishing culture at the CDMD. Evans-Molina said that they provide a nurturing environment that emphasizes collaboration and a collective commitment to scientific progress. With its opportunities in pilot funding and unique enrichment program, Evans-Molina said the CDMD is an ideal place for scientists to grow and blossom in their careers—just like she has over the past 11 years.

Looking ahead

With a recent transition to the role of director of the CDMD, Evans-Molina said that she sees continued growth on the horizon.

“We are extremely lucky to have an outstanding and dedicated executive committee and group of core directors. Building the CDMD has been a true team effort, and we are all committed to the idea of continued innovation,” she said “Our goal is to ensure that the diabetes research community at IU has access to the latest technology needed to successfully compete for extramural funding.”

Beyond this mission, Evans-Molina said that she will also work to broaden connections with the local community, including the experts in translational science, informatics and public health, to bring improved health outcomes to people in Indiana and around the world.

At the root of this lifetime of learning, Evans-Molina revealed, is the overarching objective of improving health outcomes. After all, lessons learned in education, research and clinical care ultimately circle back to one thing: patients.

“As a physician, I think your identity is always linked to your patients,” she said. “It’s the first thing you learn to do as part of your training—to care for people. As a physician scientist, you become all these other things along the way, but you never give up that piece of yourself.”

Carmella Evans-Molina, MD, PhD, is the J.O. Ritchey Professor of Medicine and Director of the Center for Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases (CDMD). She is the director of the Islet and Physiology Core at the CDMD and leader of the Diabetes research program at the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research. 

The leadership team at the CDMD includes Associate Director Kieren Mather, MD, and the executive committee: Peter Roach, PhD; Nuria Morral, PhD; X. Charlie Dong, PhD; Kenneth Dunn, PhD; Michael Sturek, PhD; Robert Considine, PhD; Amber Mosley, PhD; and Yunlong Liu, PhD; Tamara Hannon, MD; and Jeff Elmendorf, PhD.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Author

Sara Buckallew

Communications Coordinator

Sara Buckallew works in the Dean's Office of Strategic Communications. As a communications coordinator, Sara supports internal and external communication needs for the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research and the Center for Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases.