Evans-Molina inspires, mentors rising stars in diabetes research
Laura Gates Nov 18, 2022
When Carmella Evans-Molina, MD, PhD, MS, is asked to speak about her career journey, she often starts her presentation with a picture of Forrest Gump, reciting his classic line: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”
With her roots in West Virginia coal country, Evans-Molina never dreamed she would one day be a nationally recognized physician-scientist and director of the Center for Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases (CDMD) at Indiana University School of Medicine. She is also the Eli Lilly and Company Professor of Pediatric Diabetes, the director of the Indiana Diabetes Research Center and director of the Diabetes Research Program in the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research at IU School of Medicine.
When Evans-Molina was a child, she saw her pediatrician frequently for an autoimmune condition of the thyroid. “I thought he was the most amazing person in the world,” she said.
While that may have foreshadowed her future career interests as a researcher in pediatric diabetes, the path to becoming a physician or scientist seemed out of reach.
Evans-Molina’s parents were 17 and 21 when they married. Her mom had their first child one year later. Her father was an electrical engineer who worked as a foreman in a coal mine; her mother worked as a kindergarten aide. She never had the opportunity to go to college, but she insisted her daughters would.
“That was a constant when I was growing up—college was not going to be optional, and education was always very important,” Evans-Molina recalled.
On her dad’s side of the family, Evans-Molina’s grandmother set the example of lifelong learning. When her husband left her with eight children to raise on her own, she went back to school and earned a degree in education, becoming a West Virginia schoolteacher. Because she never learned to drive, she rode the bus to school with the children. That perseverance taught her children—and their children—not to let circumstances limit their dreams.
“I have had the good fortune to have the example of two very strong women in my life,” Evans-Molina said. “Their example shaped very much who I am.”
An uncle who became a physician was an inspiration for Evans-Molina, who also felt drawn to health care. But she worried she “wasn’t smart enough.” Instead, she decided to study pharmacy at West Virginia University.
“I’m still a licensed pharmacist in West Virginia,” noted Evans-Molina. “But I realized I wanted to do more. That led to medical school.”
With a class size of just 48, the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine program was designed to train physicians who would stay in West Virginia to practice. However, Evans-Molina found herself itching to experience life outside her home state.
She matched into Harvard’s internal medicine residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. At most academic medical centers, it’s easy to tell who has the most seniority in the room—the person with the longest white coat. But at Mass General, it wasn’t so obvious.
“Everyone wore the student coat because we were lifelong learners—there’s always more to learn,” she was taught. That resonated with Evans-Molina.
Her first mentor in research, Elaine Hylek, MD, MPH, inspired a passion for epidemiology—the study of the distribution and determinants of diseases and other health-related events in specified populations.
Steered by her childhood experience, Evans-Molina next pursued an endocrinology fellowship with the University of Virginia (UVA) Medical Center in Charlottesville—the place where she had been referred as a child to see renowned pediatric endocrinologist Robert Blizzard, MD. She encountered him again when he gave a lecture to her fellowship class.
“That was a really special moment in my training,” Evans-Molina said.
The program at UVA strongly emphasized laboratory research—something completely new to Evans-Molina. She gravitated to the lab of Raghu Mirmira, MD, PhD, who later would become the inaugural director of the diabetes center at IU School of Medicine. Evans-Molina succeeded him as director of the CDMD in 2019.
“I had zero experience in basic science. I was kind of a disaster in the lab to begin with,” Evans-Molina recalled. “I just happened to find a really amazing mentor in Raghu Mirmira. The people in his lab were super patient and helpful. They taught me how to do bench work, and I fell in love with that.”
While doing her fellowship at UVA, she simultaneously earned a Master of Science degree, then followed that with a PhD. In 2008, Mirmira recruited Evans-Molina to IU School of Medicine, where she started as an assistant professor. Her career took another pivotal turn when Linda DiMeglio, MD, invited her to join the research team for TrialNet, an international network of institutions, physicians and scientists conducting clinical trials in Type 1 diabetes.
“Up to that point, I had been happily enmeshed in basic science,” Evans-Molina said. “Now I was challenged to think about how my research could be translated to improve diabetes prediction and treatment. That was a watershed moment in my career when I learned about clinical research from Linda and her team.”
Passing along lessons learned
Today, Evans-Molina leads the Long-Term Investigative Follow-Up in TrialNet (LIFT), which provides ongoing monitoring of study participants to determine long-term complications, benefits or other effects from treatment. She is also lead investigator for the Rare and Atypical Diabetes Network (RADIANT).
“Carmella is insightful and dependable,” said DiMeglio, who has watched Evans-Molina’s development as a translational researcher and institutional leader. “Her style is to work to make sure those she mentors and leads have a chance to grow with a clear direction.”
At IU School of Medicine, Evans-Molina’s research focuses on understanding beta-cell dysfunction leading to the development of diabetes. She has published more than 130 research papers, and she is a national leader in the field, serving as current president of the Immunology of Diabetes Society. She also sees patients weekly at the Roudebush VA Medical Center.
Cognizant of her own journey, Evans-Molina maintains a “warm and open” culture in her lab, where junior colleagues can develop skills.
“I’ve always tried to create an environment where people who don’t have a lot of experience can come for training. I was able to build a successful research career because of the patience of others and because I have had amazing mentors. I want to preserve those same opportunities for the next generation of scientists,” she said.
For graduate student Staci Weaver, Evans-Molina has been a role model. As someone living with Type 1 diabetes, Weaver’s research goal is to prevent others from developing the disease and improve quality of life for those who already have it.
“Carmella has really helped me with my scientific writing. Under her mentorship, we were able to secure two pre-doctoral grants to support my research,” said Weaver, who recently was named to the IUPUI “Premier 10” recognizing top graduate students. “Carmella has this unique way of appropriately pushing students to their full potential. I am extremely thankful to be guided by her on my journey to earning my PhD.”
Emily Sims, MD, started building research skills during her fellowship in pediatric endocrinology at IU School of Medicine, working in Evans-Molina’s lab. Sims is now a physician scientist with the CDMD and assistant director of faculty development and translational research at the Wells Center.
“Carmella has been a transformative person in my life and career,” said Sims. “She’s one of those unusual people who is really good at all of the things—being a great leader in academics and having this research career where she’s making basic science discoveries on the mechanistic level and translating them to clinical care. It’s amazing, as a junior person, to work with someone like that.”
Jamie Felton, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics and a physician scientist with the Wells Center and the CDMD, said her mentorship relationship with Evans-Molina started before she was recruited to IU in 2017.
“I recall watching her give a talk at a meeting while I was still a pediatric endocrinology fellow at another institution and being struck by the passion and confidence with which she discussed her science and answered questions. I remember thinking, ‘I want to be like her when I grow up,’” Felton said.
One piece of advice from Evans-Molina that has stayed with her is, “Ask for what you need.”
“While seemingly simple advice, as an early-stage investigator, imposter syndrome is real. By encouraging me to advocate for myself, she inherently placed value on my role as a physician scientist and future colleague, which prompted a paradigm shift in the way I approach my work and value as a physician scientist and, ultimately, my career,” Felton said.
Evans-Molina is a collaborative and uplifting leader who inspires continual improvement of the research program, her colleagues say.
“Carmella is an advocate,” said Felton. “She uses the respect that she garners from other leaders in the diabetes research field to showcase the work of others within the department, and in particular, her mentees.”
Continuous learning—and karaoke!
True to her values as a lifelong learner, Evans-Molina decided to learn the piano in 2019 and has worked her way up to “mid-elementary level.”
“It’s a nice way to relax and bring out another part of my brain,” she said.
As she practices Christmas music, she tries not to think too much about the upcoming recital.
“As a physician, scientist and researcher, I get up all the time and talk in front of people, and I don’t get nervous anymore—I just do it. But for the holiday recital, I am with children playing the piano, and I am an absolute wreck!” she said. “My daughter is part of this recital, and she’s not embarrassed of me, so that’s kind of her.”
Evans-Molina and her husband, Chad, have two daughters, ages 14 and 17. Her mother and three dogs—Pepper, Bean and Tate—are also part of the active household.
Carmella and Chad met in undergrad at West Virginia University and got married the week before she started medical school.
“I have an amazing spouse,” she said. “He has been very much a part of this entire journey.”
Piano isn’t Evans-Molina’s only creative escape. She’s part of a karaoke group with several colleagues from IU and other institutions. Whenever they gather for scientific conferences, karaoke night is included.
“Carmella is really into it. She likes to do duets—a favorite is ‘Islands in the Stream’ by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. She does that one with a colleague from Vancouver,” said Sims, a fellow karaoke clubber. “We work so hard, it’s important to enjoy each other, too.”
Whenever Evans-Molina feels overwhelmed by the administrative side of her many leadership roles, she has another place of retreat—her lab.
“If I just spend a little bit of time with my lab, it’s totally rejuvenating,” she said.
Back when she started pharmacy school in West Virginia, Evans-Molina never could have predicted how her career would evolve through following her natural curiosity and learning from key mentors.
Her “box of chocolates” now contains bold and beautiful flavors representing pivotal moments in her development as a physician scientist and leader.
“I’ve taken opportunities,” she said, “and I don’t think I’ve ever regretted learning something new.”
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Women are leading the way in helping Indiana University School of Medicine fulfill its mission to advance health in the state of Indiana and beyond by promoting innovation and excellence in education, research and patient care. The Women in Leadership series celebrates the contributions of women who have emerged as strong leaders within the medical school and in their respective fields of expertise.