Medical school mentors, sponsors honored for their impact – Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

Medical school mentors, sponsors honored for their impact – Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

Visit the News Hub

53 receive Dean’s Impact Awards for teaching, guiding, inspiring, advocating

Matt Miller

It might seem odd, but a steaming cup of coconut chicken noodle soup can go a long way toward advancing patient care, research and education. Similarly, a medical school’s success can be enhanced with a simple reassurance when young scientists worry about research funding, lab experiments or their futures. Or an empathetic “I understand” to a medical student grieving a patient’s death.

Soup, reassurance and empathy exemplify relationships between faculty mentors at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and their mentees — students, residents, and early-career physicians and scientists. By all accounts, such seemingly small gestures can have profound effects on mentees navigating the complex and, at moments, overwhelming steps for success in classrooms, labs and clinical settings.

To recognize the importance of and appreciation for mentorship and sponsorship on the Medical Campus, the school will honor 53 faculty with Dean’s Impact Awards in a ceremony Tuesday, April 30, at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

“Inherent in the success of the School of Medicine is an emphasis on mentors and sponsors and the critical role they play in the career development of clinicians, educators and researchers,” said Renée A. Shellhaas, MD, who facilitated the awards as the senior associate dean for faculty promotions and career development. “Outstanding mentorship takes time and dedication to teach, guide, inspire and advocate on behalf of mentees.

“Likewise, sponsors who leverage their own professional standing and experience to advance others’ careers – through expanding networks, nominations for awards, positions and promotions – can significantly and positively impact careers,” added Shellhaas, also the David T. Blasingame Professor of Neurology. “The time and commitment of mentors and sponsors are too often underrecognized, but without these leaders, the School of Medicine could not reach its potential. Together, mentorship and sponsorship support the perseverance and inspiration needed for great success.”

David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor, praises mentors and sponsors for dedicated time, expertise and compassion with students, residents, fellows and junior faculty.

“Mentorship and sponsorship are critical to successful scientific, educational and clinical careers,” Perlmutter said. “Both can open new doors, inspire new ideas in research and teaching, model excellence in patient care and spark even more important relationships. Their impact and momentum are felt not only at WashU Medicine, but in our legacy of developing careers that have impacted medical and scientific advances more broadly.”

Stories of mentorship and sponsorship exhibited by three of the medical school faculty members who are being honored with this year’s Dean’s Impact Awards follow. Each leads with details from award nomination materials.

Soe S. Mar

When a resident is struggling with personal or emotional challenges, they can often be found in the office of Soe S. Mar, MD, a professor of neurology and of pediatrics. When a resident requires extra assistance in their training, she is on the front line coaching and supporting them. As residents have raised concerns about workflow or clinical demands, she has made modifications that ensure that residents do not shoulder unnecessary burdens. She is the pediatric neurologist the residents aspire to become. — Douglas Larsen, MD, a professor of neurology and of pediatrics and vice chair of education for the Department of Neurology

Scents of turmeric, saffron and ginger co-mingle on the 12th floor of the Northwest Tower, often an indication that Soe S. Mar, MD, is caring for medical residents via homemade dishes from her native Myanmar: Yangon chicken biryani, pickled tea leaf salad or ohn no khao swè (coconut chicken noodle soup).

“I connect to people with food,” said Mar, who has been the program director of the Pediatric Neurology Residency Program for the past decade. “I also feel it’s important to pay attention to their emotional well-being.”

As a child in downtown Yangon in Myanmar, Mar saw her mother help prepare huge pots of breakfast soup and rice for the less fortunate, as well as monks and nuns who awaited the food with their empty bowls. As a medical student, Mar would host study sessions while also feeding her friends. “It’s only natural that I make meals to show I care,” she said.

Along with food, Mar offers mentoring to residents on diagnostically challenging cases, some including MRI brain scans indicating unusual findings. She helps guide their clinical research in pediatric neuroimmunology, offers career advice and listens when they have personal problems. She keeps in touch with many former trainees and continues to mentor and sponsor them.

Overall, Mar has directly shaped the careers of nearly 60 pediatric neurology trainees, according to the nomination letter for the Dean’s Impact Awards. Additionally, she mentors undergraduate students, fellows, early-career physicians and program directors.

Her spacious home near the Missouri Botanical Garden serves as a second home for residents, including those who have needed a place to stay.

Mar said she understands residents who feel uprooted. “It’s important to provide social support,” she said. “So many residents are away from home or too busy to go home regularly. They’re away from their parents and their personal networks. Because they know I care for them, and the whole department cares for them, my residents are pretty good at coming to me and talking about what they need for their training or when they have a personal crisis and want someone who will listen.”

Alex S. Holehouse

Matt Miller

Alex S. Holehouse (right), an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, is one of 53 faculty being honored with Dean’s Impact Awards for excellence in mentorship and sponsorship. Early on, he prioritized the mentorship and sponsorship of his trainees, including Ryan Emenecker, PhD, (left) a postdoctoral researcher in the Holehouse lab.

Alex Holehouse, PhD, sees his role as a mentor to empower and support his trainees to succeed via their own individual metrics of success. Importantly, this involves direct one-on-one support in the context of scientific and professional development. Consequently, his students have done exceptionally well, receiving a slew of highly prestigious postdoctoral and graduate fellowships. Holehouse’s trainees consistently generate exceptional scientific output and are recognized for their success with local and national awards at an impressive rate.  — Benjamin Garcia, PhD, head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and the Raymond H. Wittcoff Distinguished Professor

Pressures on junior faculty – assistant professors at the start of their careers – can be intense. Will the experiments work? Will funding come through? How should different demands be prioritized? Holehouse, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, decided early on to focus on mentorship and the success of his trainees.

His priorities stem from an interview he had in 2019 with Andrzej Krezel, PhD, an associate professor in the department. “Andrzej asked me a superficially simple but, in retrospect, absolutely fundamental question: ‘What does success look like to you?’

“I still think about this question a lot and try to ensure my short-, medium- and long-term actions align with what I think success looks like,” Holehouse said. “For me, success is found in my people. I want to ensure every person in my lab can succeed on their own terms in a way that aligns with their definitions of success.”

Holehouse believes that providing a supportive community extends beyond the walls of Washington University. In spring 2020, COVID-19 threatened to upstage early-career researchers by preventing them from presenting at upcoming conferences and meetings. While lockdowns made it impossible to attend conferences in person, Holehouse explored an alternative route to enable junior faculty to share their work. Along with Magnus Kjaergaard, of Aarhus University in Denmark, Holehouse cofounded IDPSeminars, an online webinar series that provides a forum for faculty to present research findings on intrinsically disordered proteins, their wide-ranging research focus. Such proteins often play a key role in cellular signaling pathways and are frequently associated with diseases.

Over the past four years, the webinar has become a global platform to promote research, with a strong emphasis on highlighting scientists from diverse backgrounds. With about 60 shows produced, the platform has hosted more than 120 speakers, with 150 to 250 attendees for each webinar.

“While we started with a focus on junior faculty, we’ve since broadened our scope to encompass big names from the disordered protein field,” Holehouse said. “In addition to providing a platform for folks to present cutting-edge work, it also helps to level the playing field so that researchers who may lack the resources to travel can still learn and network.”

“One thing I cannot overemphasize enough is that the only reason IDPSeminars continues to be a success is because the disordered proteins community is such a warm, welcoming and supportive group,” Holehouse said. “This is extremely important to me, and trying to ensure we maintain an open, supportive and collaborative spirit as a group of scientists is essential for my scientific ecosystem – and by extension, Washington University – to be a good place for students and postdocs to train and work.”

Nichole Zehnder

Matt Miller

Nichole Zehnder, MD, (right) an associate professor of internal medicine and associate dean for educational strategy in the school’s Office of Education, is one of 53 faculty honored for excellence in mentorship and sponsorship. Zehnder is shown hugging mentee and graduating medical student Ian Marigi after learning that he matched into an orthopedic surgery residency at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Since joining the faculty in 2020, Nichole Zehnder, MD, has built two incredible programs that support the mentorship and sponsorship of medical students at Washington University. She has given selflessly of her time to support struggling residents and faculty as well. We all need someone to lend a hand when we are down, and Nichole exemplifies this in all she does. Moreover, through her work, she has created a culture of mentorship, sponsorship and support within the medical school. — Eva Aagaard, MD, vice chancellor for medical education, senior associate dean for education, and the Carol B. and Jerome T. Loeb Professor of Medical Education

For many physicians, Match Day stirs nostalgia. The pivotal milestone, always on the third Friday in March, marks when U.S. medical students learn where they will train as residents after graduation, steering their careers as bona fide physicians.

This year’s Match Day added an extra-emotional layer for Zehnder, an associate professor of internal medicine and associate dean for educational strategy in the school’s Office of Education. Not only did she start her journey at the School of Medicine at the same time as the matching students, she mentored more than 100 throughout their four years as part of a mentorship program she spearheaded for the Gateway Curriculum.

“This Match Day is extra meaningful,” Zehnder said before congratulating her mentees, all of whom received happy matches. “I’ve grown close to them.”

One of the two programs Zehnder launched involves faculty coaches who meet with medical students longitudinally in small groups and individually. Before beginning the program, Zehnder trained faculty on understanding how systemic racism disproportionately impacts students of color, navigating challenging conversations one-on-one and in small groups, and informing them of the many resources available to students who are struggling academically or personally.

Coaching sessions aim to encourage medical students to share thoughts about communal experiences encountered in medical school and, more broadly, in medicine. Topics have included ethics involving organ donation and transplantation; students’ relationships with their first patient, a body donor; dignified dying among the terminally ill; and grieving a patient’s death.

“Just knowing that someone else understands what they’re going through can help enormously,” Zehnder said. “Walking alongside trainees in the Gateway Curriculum coaching program has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career.”

She also leads another program called the Student Success Team, comprised of highly trained faculty with specialties in the curriculum, student affairs and other student-centered topics. Their aim is to provide personal and individualized academic support for students.

“For me, mentorship is about more than just academic and professional support,” Zehnder said. “It’s about encouraging personal growth, fostering resilience and helping students navigate the complexities of their future profession. Witnessing their resilience, witnessing their moments of insight, and being there to celebrate their successes or offer support through setbacks has been an honor.”

Please visit to learn about the other awardees.

Read More