Faculty Members Fill Ranks in Strategic Areas, From Democracy to Sustainability

October 22, 2021 By Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu

Searching for the key genes responsible for the formation of the human heart. Developing artificial intelligence technologies to help in high-stakes decision-making. Using rapidly renewable materials such as bamboo, grasses and invasive plant species in sustainable design.

Recruiting and retaining the very best researchers, teachers and mentors to the University of Virginia are among the top initiatives in the institution’s Great and Good 2030 Plan and align with recommendations of the 2020 Racial Equity Task Force, which emphasizes UVA’s commitment to broadening and strengthening excellence and the diversity of the faculty. Recently hired faculty members are already beginning to bolster UVA’s capabilities in the strategic priority areas outlined in the plan: democracy, environmental resilience and sustainability, precision medicine, the brain and neuroscience, and digital technology and society.

“These faculty are exceptional, as teachers, scholars, clinicians and mentors,” UVA Executive Vice President and Provost Liz Magill said. “They are powerhouses, each and every one, and bring with them the intellectual breadth, diversity, creativity and commitment to serve in all that they do that are the hallmarks of UVA at its best.  Their contributions will propel UVA forward in the years to come, and help us fulfill President Jim Ryan’s aspiration to be both great and good.” 

Mohammad Fallahi-Sichani

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Fallahi Sichani Headshot
(Photo by Tom Cogill)

Fallahi-Sichani is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering – a joint department of the schools of Engineering and Medicine – teaching two upper-level courses, “Systems Bioengineering” and “Bioreaction Kinetics (Biomedical and Pharmacological Perspectives).”

His research in systems pharmacology, funded by the National Cancer Institute, “dissects the complex responses of cells to therapeutic interventions, particularly those that lead to drug resistance of tumors to anti-cancer therapies in human patients,” he wrote in email. By understanding drug response mechanisms, he and his research team look for innovative strategies to induce selective killing in cancer cells while reducing the undesired adverse effects in healthy cells.

“I look forward to enjoying fruitful collaborations between my lab and other labs across diverse disciplines, including data science, engineering and cancer biology,” Fallahi-Sichani said.

Karen Hirschi

Karen Hirschi Headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Hirschi, Alumni Professor of Cell Biology, is an internationally respected vascular biologist using a variety of cellular, molecular and genomic approaches to study the development and regeneration of blood vessels and blood cells in animal and human stem cell models. 

The goal is to identify candidate gene mutations that cause vascular and blood cell developmental disorders, Hirschi wrote in email. Her lab is analyzing genetic data from affected patients and their parents, and will screen candidate genetic mutations in human stem cell and animal models to determine which cause defects in the development of organs and systems in utero.

Part of her research, focused on personalized medicine, involves partnerships with clinical scientists and bioinformaticians at UVA, nonprofit health care provider Inova and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

With support from the School of Medicine and the Department of Cell Biology, Hirschi also is leading efforts to establish a Developmental Genomics Center to connect developmental biologists with genomic and clinical translational scientists across Grounds, with Inova and the NICHD. A major goal of the center is to translate developmentally related databases into disease gene discovery and therapeutic targeting for patients with developmental defects in multiple organ systems, such as cancer, birth defects, cognitive impairment and tissue degeneration.

Chen Chen

Chen Headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Chen, research assistant professor at UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, came to Grounds from Google, where she was a software engineer working on personalized recommendations for Google Assistant. Her research focuses on the connectivity of complex networks, and has been applied to address pressing challenges in various high-impact domains, including social media, bioinformatics, recommendations and critical infrastructure systems. Her research has appeared in prestigious journals, winning several awards.

“I’m looking forward to working with the outstanding faculty and students here at UVA for epidemiology-related research problems from the network science perspective,” Chen, who moved to Charlottesville earlier this year, said.

She is a member of the Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing Division that is part of the institute, led by director Madhav Marathe.

Mamadou Dia

Mamadou Dia headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Dia, who joined the French department this fall as an assistant professor of practice with a joint appointment in media studies, is an award-winning Senegalese film director and screenwriter. Co-founder of the production company Joyedidi, Dia received an M.F.A. in filmmaking from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2017.

He is teaching hands-on introductory filmmaking classes. By the end of the semester, students will have produced a short film script and shot a scene from their work.

“I am thrilled to be part of this vibrant and diverse community,” wrote Dia (pronounced “jah”) in an email. “Filmmaking is all about learning from others and with others. I am learning something every day from the students in my classes, my fellow colleagues, this university and Charlottesville.”

In films often based on his life growing up in West Africa, Dia explores the tension between fact and fiction, realism and abstraction. His first feature film, “Baamum Nafi (Nafi’s Father),” premiered in 2019, winning two awards at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. The film also has been nominated for the 2021 Golden Stallion of Yennenga award, to be given at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso – the only feature-length Senegalese film in the competition.

Vanessa Guerra

Vanessa Guerra headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Guerra, assistant professor in urban and environmental planning in the School of Architecture, works on urban interventions to promote social inclusion, resilience and sustainable development in cities and regions worldwide. Her teaching intersects with her research interests in areas such as urban informality, spatial justice, sustainable infrastructure and design thinking. 

She is teaching a graduate seminar in “Informal Urbanism” that “investigates the economic, social, and spatial and environmental dimensions of informal urban practices and their role in the creative production of cities, resilience and spatial justice,” she wrote in email.

“I am very much looking forward to teaching, collaborating with faculties across different areas, working with students and building my Informal Urbanism and Co-Production research initiative at UVA to promote more just, inclusive and sustainable cities.”

Guerra, originally from Ecuador, earned a Ph.D. in environmental design and planning from Virginia Tech, a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and a bachelor’s in architecture from USFQ University in Quito, Ecuador. Prior to obtaining her Ph.D., Guerra served as a consultant, from 2015 to 2020, at the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

Saurabh Kulkarni

Saurabh Kulkarni headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The key genes required for the correct formation of the heart remain unknown.

Kulkarni, an assistant professor of biology co-teaching in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate program, is building a research program that seeks to understand the genotypic alterations underlying congenital heart disease. In the U.S. alone, congenital heart disease affects 40,000 babies every year and is one of the leading causes of infant death. To address these challenges, he and his team propose a new approach to identify genes vital for the embryonic development specifically related to the heart and to study how mutations in these genes may cause congenital heart defects.

“We have recently formed a big collaboration at UVA Children’s and have started recruiting patients with complex congenital heart disease to understand the underlying genetic causes,” he said.

Albert Rivero

Albert Rivero headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Rivero, assistant professor of politics, works on judicial politics in the U.S., with particular interests in the lower federal courts and public attitudes toward the judiciary. 

Rivero, who earned his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he also got a law degree, is involved with the Democracy Initiative as part of the John L. Nau III History and Principles of Democracy Lab. The Nau Lab is the permanent laboratory of the Democracy Initiative, an arena where core conceptual and historical questions about democracy are researched and debated.

One ongoing project considers how the U.S. federal court system shapes the decision-making of lower court judges, focusing on how judges on the U.S. Courts of Appeals change their behavior when the composition of their circuits changes. His current research also considers topics such as judicial behavior in voting rights cases, the public’s influence on the courts, and the effects of judicial appointments and the diversification of the bench on judicial decision-making. 

Sarah Lebovitz

Sarah Lebovitz headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Lebovitz, assistant professor in the McIntire School of Commerce, arrived in Charlottesville last summer, moving from New York City. 

She focuses on information systems and technological transformation. Lebovitz teaches the “Systems and Strategy” course in the Commerce School’s Integrated Core Experience for third-year students. Lebovitz said she is “looking forward to working with the incredible commerce students who will become the next generation of leaders in the business world and beyond.”

Her research looks at how professional groups adopt and use new technological tools in their work. She also is studying artificial intelligence and the future of work and employment.

“My current research uses in-depth field methods to study how AI technologies are changing the way experts and professionals make high-stakes decisions, such as how radiologists are using advanced AI tools when making medical diagnosis decisions.”

Lakeshia Taite

Lakeshia Taite Headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Taite, research assistant professor of chemical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, came to UVA in August and specializes in vascular tissue engineering.

She designs biomaterials to create cell-instructive microenvironments that encourage tissue growth or regeneration. By tuning the properties of synthetic polymers, combining naturally derived polymers and hybrid materials, Taite is making biofunctional materials capable of supporting cellular processes that lead to novel tissue growth, tissue regeneration or the treatment of disease.

Currently teaching a section of “Introduction to Engineering,” she said, “It has been a lot of fun so far. The people and the environment that has been cultivated here at UVA are both so exciting to me as an engineer, a researcher and someone who is highly motivated by student success.

“I am most looking forward to building relationships that lead to productive research collaborations and mentoring opportunities,” Taite wrote in email.

Taite received her B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Alabama and her Ph.D. in bioengineering at Rice University, then conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Washington.

Reza Mousavi

Reza Mousavi headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

With expertise in artificial intelligence and business analytics, Mousavi, assistant professor of commerce, researches topics related to the societal impacts and economics of social media, data science and business analytics, user-generated content, and health care information systems.

Mousavi is teaching courses in data analytics to graduate students in the Master of Science in Business Analytics program, jointly offered by the McIntire School of Commerce and the Darden Business School. He will also teach business analytics with Python to undergraduates, and a more advanced version to graduate students.

“I am very interested in conducting high-impact, interdisciplinary research with other scholars on Grounds,” he wrote in email. He’s also looking forward to offering courses that will help commerce students be prepared for the job market as well as other post-graduation endeavors.

Mousavi has worked with leading consulting firms on a variety of data science projects and was also lead data scientist at State Farm Insurance Co. before entering academia.

Damon Swift

Damon Swift headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Swift, associate professor in the School of Education and Human Development’s Department of Kinesiology, received his Ph.D. from UVA in 2010 and returned this summer after working at East Carolina University. He completed an NIH postdoctoral training at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Preventive Medicine in 2013.

Swift’s primary research interest is evaluating the effect of different exercise training programs on cardiovascular and diabetes risk factors. He is particularly interested the impact of exercise on weight loss, weight maintenance and risk factors for heart disease in obese and health disparity populations, he wrote in email. His research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association. 

He’s teaching exercise interventions for chronic disease this semester.

Swift said as a UVA alum, he’s excited about watching UVA sports, enjoying the area’s restaurants and hiking. “I look forward to professionally being able to establish a research program looking at weight loss and how to help people better maintain weight loss,” he wrote in email.

Katie MacDonald

Katie MacDonald Headshot
(Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

MacDonald, assistant professor in architecture, has already obtained funding for her research in sustainable material design and technologies, including a BioMaterial Building Exposition grant from the Jefferson Trust. Her design and research broadly aim to dismantle traditional notions of material applications, leveraging technology to enhance the potential of sustainable materials and challenge cultural perceptions. MacDonald’s current work focuses on rapidly renewable materials such as bamboo, grasses and invasive plant species.

MacDonald co-founded the design firm After Architecture with UVA assistant professor Kyle Schumann. She is currently leading a 3Cavaliers project, “Compositing Poaceae: Grass Assemblies for Architecture and Construction,” (poaceae is a scientific name for grasses) with Deborah Lawrence, professor of environmental sciences, and Marek-Jerzy Pindera, a professor in the Engineering School’s Department of Systems and Information Engineering. 

Prior to coming to the University, she was the 2019-20 Tennessee Architecture Fellow at the University of Tennessee. MacDonald holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Cornell University and a master’s from Harvard University.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications