SOP’s Desai and Venitz receive university’s highest faculty honors

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013
By: Cynthia McMullen


Umesh Desai (left) and Jurgen Venitz, friends as well as colleagues, jokingly said that receiving these honors is their going-away gift to Dean Victor Yanchick, who will retire next year.

Umesh Desai (left) and Jurgen Venitz, friends as well as colleagues, jokingly said that receiving these honors is their going-away gift to Dean Victor Yanchick, who will retire next year.

Two VCU School of Pharmacy faculty – Umesh Desai of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Jürgen Venitz of the Department of Pharmaceutics – were honored during VCU’s 31st Opening Faculty Address and Convocation for having distinguished themselves and the university through their commitment to excellence, innovation and service.

Desai received the Distinguished Scholarship Award and Venitz received the Distinguished Teaching Award. The event took place Aug. 21 at VCU’s Siegel Center.

Also receiving faculty awards were John Clore, School of Medicine, Distinguished Service Award; and Albert Farrell, College of Humanities and Sciences, University Award of Excellence. A new award, the President’s Award of Excellence, went to Joseph Marolla, Office of the Vice Provost for Instruction and Student Success; and Presidential Medallions went to Nancy Langston, School of Nursing (retired); H.M. Lee, School of Medicine (posthumous); and James Neifeld, School of Medicine.

Ceremony participants included VCU President Michael Rao; Beverly Warren, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs; and Sheldon Retchin, senior vice president for health sciences and CEO of the VCU Health System.

Umesh Desai: Distinguished Scholarship Award

In addition to his teaching, mentoring and research in the School of Pharmacy’s Department of Medicinal Chemistry, Desai is interim director of the university’s Institute for Structural Biology and Drug Discovery. He is nationally and internationally known for his work in developing a new line of anticoagulant agents expected to alleviate adverse affects seen in current thrombotic therapy used with heart attacks and strokes.

His lab is working to design a synthetic mimetic of heparin, a commonly used, animal-derived anticoagulant agent that can cause adverse effects. That research has been key in launching a new field of medicinal chemistry — nonsaccharide glycosaminoglycan mimetics — and the molecules being developed might also prove to be of use in treating cancer, HSV, HIV and chronic wounds.

Desai recently led a team of professors in applying for an NIH program project that established VCU as a Program of Excellence in Glycosciences along with five other institutions, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins. The seven-year grant will go toward making xenotransplantation, the use of nonhuman organs in humans, a clinical reality.

Desai joined the School of Pharmacy faculty in 1998. He earned his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in organic chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, India, followed by postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Iowa and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Dr. Desai has published or has presented over one hundred scientific papers and holds several patents,” noted Richard A. Glennon, chairman of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry. “He has been continually funded since joining the department and currently accounts for about 50 percent of the department’s external funding.

“Dr. Desai is a ‘triple threat’,” Glennon continued. “Excellent in teaching, research and service. … However, research is his strong suit.”

Jürgen Venitz: Distinguished Teaching Award

Venitz, who arrived at the School of Pharmacy in 1988, earned his M.D. degree and Ph.D. in physiology at Universität des Saarlandes in Saarbrücken, Germany. In between degrees, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow in clinical pharmacology at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy.

He, too, is known nationally and internationally, especially for having coordinated and taught a dozen workshops at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration in this country and also in Germany and Brazil.

Venitz is professor and vice chairman of the School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutics, and the bulk of his teaching duties lie there. He has the distinction of being the only faculty member in the school who has teaching assignments in all three departments: Pharmaceutics, Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science. He also has taught classes for VCU Life Sciences and the Department of Nurse Anesthesia.

Despite teaching what he describes as “notoriously disliked” courses – pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics – Venitz is known as a well-liked and respected professor on both the professional and graduate levels. That might be partly due to the fact that he began tutoring at age 15 and has not stopped teaching and mentoring since. It might also explain why he received the School of Pharmacy’s first Teaching Excellence Award in 1990 – and again in 2011.

“Dr. Venitz’s use of technology and mathematical stimulation to demonstrate core principles in the temporal basis of drug action on the human body has enabled him to raise the quality of his teaching and the comprehension of his students to levels that are far superior to most who teach in this area,” wrote Peter Byron, chairman of the School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutics.

“He displays an uncanny ability to simplify complicated topics – resulting in the removal of much of the mystery and rote learning from the applied science known as clinical pharmacology.”

To see photos from the 31st Opening Faculty Address and Convocation, click here.