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2023 VA Research Week Kickoff Event

In observance of National VA Research Week, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis R. McDonough, hosted an event on May 9 to publicly recognize the work of six outstanding VA researchers. Their work is representative of more than 3,600 VA researchers who work to advance medical care for the nation, U.S. Veterans, and people around the globe.

The honorees were: Dr. Rory Cooper, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System; Dr. Donna Washington, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System; Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, VA St. Louis Healthcare System; Dr. Elizabeth Yano, VA Greater Los Angles Healthcare System; Dr. Nicholas Nickols, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System; and Dr. Samantha Connolly, VA Boston Healthcare System. Learn more about the honorees below.

Dr. Rory Cooper, Director, Human Engineering Research Laboratories
VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System

Dr. Rory Cooper

Dr. Rory Cooper

Dr. Rory Cooper is the director and founder of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), which is a collaboration between the VA and the University of Pittsburgh established in 1994. Dr. Cooper is also a FISA Foundation – Paralyzed Veterans of America distinguished professor of rehabilitation engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, senior career scientist at the VA, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army for Pennsylvania (West) and U.S. Army Veteran.

Recently inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame for his inventions in mobility technology, including a hand-rim for wheelchairs and a digital joystick that compensates for impaired hand and arm function, Dr. Cooper has devoted his life to the pursuit of using technology to improve the quality of life for disabled Veterans like himself.

His research team at HERL holds patents on more than 25 innovations in wheelchair designs, and they do extensive research on assistive robots, brain-machine interfaces, transfer biomechanics, virtual reality and more. They have even invented a robotic wheelchair that can climb stairs. Furthermore, Dr. Cooper has designed research equipment used in laboratories and training facilities around the world, including to prepare athletes for the Paralympic Games.

Dr. Cooper is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors; American Association for the Advancement of Science; the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering; and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has earned the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, IEEE Biomedical Engineering Medal, and the John P. McGovern Science and Society Medal. Notably, he even has his own trading card from the U.S. patent and trademark office.

Dr. Cooper’s innovations are being used by more than a quarter million people of all ages and walks in life, leaving an unquestionable impact on both medical science and society as a whole.

Dr. Donna Washington, Director, Health Equity Quality Enhancement Research Initiative
VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System

Dr. Donna Washington

Dr. Donna Washington

Dr. Donna Washington is the director of the Health Equity-Quality Enhancement Research Initiative (QUERI) at VHA’s national partnered evaluation center. Dr. Washington is also a staff physician at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and a professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.

Dr. Washington has devoted her career to addressing the health care needs of marginalized and underserved populations, and leading groundbreaking research that has identified and continues to break down barriers to healthcare access.

She has advanced research methods to study racial and ethnic minority veteran groups; reduced gaps in knowledge about multi-level factors driving racial and ethnic disparities in Veterans’ experience; and ultimately improved care and reduced the mortality for all racial and ethnic minority Veteran groups, including those omitted from most research studies due to their small population, such as Native Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders.

Dr. Washington’s studies have demonstrated how social determinants of health among racial and ethnic minority groups in the VA can undermine even our best models of care. More specifically, her research provided early warning signals to VA leadership in 2019 about the devastating impact the coronavirus pandemic could have on minority Veteran groups.

Additionally, her work as the principal investigator on the national survey of women veterans – the first population-based study of women veterans in 25 years – identified previously insurmountable barriers to their awareness and use of VA services. This in turn led to the launch of a national call center dedicated to reaching Women Veterans, which not only went on to create improvements in the military’s transitional assistance program, but also spurred other advances to help ensure women have access to the healthcare benefits that they have earned through their military service.

Dr. Washington also informed national, evidence-based policy for the delivery of comprehensive care for Women Veterans through foundational research studies and partnered evaluations. By linking survey data, organizational data, and outcome data, she was able to develop delivery models that improved both patients’ experiences and their health outcomes, particularly in mental health care.

In summary, Dr. Donna Washington is the personification of the VA’s commitment to deliver quality health care to all veterans, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or economic background.

Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, Associate Chief Of Staff, Research and Development
VA St. Louis Healthcare System

Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly

Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly

Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly is the chief of research and development at the VA St. Louis Healthcare System. Dr. Al-Aly is also the senior clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, no VA researcher has been more influential in shaping our understanding of how COVID-19 affects the human body than Dr. Al-Aly. At the start of the pandemic, he and his team quickly retooled their laboratory to study COVID and its possible long-term after-effects, popularly known as ‘Long COVID.’ Their intense research into the virus has produced several ground-breaking discoveries that have been critical in guiding this nation’s public health response.

Not only has his work identified the increased risk Long COVID poses to cardiovascular disease, neurologic disorders, diabetes, kidney disease, and gastrointestinal disorders, his lab also produced evidence of the effects of vaccines on Long COVID, the health risks of repeated infections, and the effectiveness of antivirals against COVID and Long COVID.

Dr. Al-Aly was even a co-chair on the Biden-Harris administration committee that developed the national research action plan on Long COVID; and he still serves on the US government Inter-agency Long COVID Coordination Council.

Dr. Al-Aly’s research contributions to the field of epidemiology have been published in the most prestigious medical journals in the world, and generated exceptionally high media and public engagement – in fact, his research ranks in the top 10 out of 23 million research papers tracked by Altmetric, having been accessed millions of times, cited more than 100,000 times, and featured in major publications from the New England Journal of Medicine to the New York Times to the Rolling Stone.

Dr. Elizabeth Yano, Director, VA Women’s Health Research Network
VA Greater Los Angles Healthcare System

Dr. Elizabeth Yano

Dr. Elizabeth Yano

Dr. Elizabeth Yano is the director of the VA Women’s Health Research Network. Dr. Yano is also a senior-research career scientist with Health Services Research and Development (HSR&D); the adjunct professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health; and the director of the VA HSR&D Center for the Study of Healthcare Innovation, Implementation and Policy at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

Dr. Yano is one of the foremost experts on Women’s Health research in the VA and has been a pioneer in using evidence-based care to transform the VA into a responsive research community. Her efforts to better focus on Veteran priorities have delivered superior quality of care, improved patient experiences, and led to better health outcomes.

As the principal investigator and co-founder of the Women’s Health Research Network – which was created in 2010 to promote research that focuses on the unique needs of Women Veterans – Dr. Yano has dramatically increased the VA’s research capacity toward Women’s Health across 76 VA facilities.

She also developed the first-ever VA Women’s Health Research Agenda, which created a roadmap for research action that brought in a national community of researchers.

Dr. Yano’s awards include HSR&D’s Senior Research Career Scientist award in 2007, the Breslow Lifetime Achievement award in 2017, and the Disabled American Veterans Special Recognition Award in 2018 for her research impacts on Women Veterans’ care. She has published more than 280 peer-reviewed, scientific papers; delivered hundreds of scientific talks and briefings; and been continuously funded as a principal investigator for more than 30 years.

Dr. Yano has removed organizational barriers and facilitated comprehensive care delivery for tens of thousands of women; identified underlying factors that affect the delivery and quality of care; and evaluated alternate models for delivering and improving that care. It cannot be overstated how much of an impact Dr. Yano has had on the care of our Women Veterans.

Dr. Nicholas Nickols, Chief of Service, Radiation Oncology
VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System

Dr. Nicholas Nickols

Dr. Nicholas Nickols

Dr. Nicholas Nickols is the chief of service for radiation oncology at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. Dr. Nickols is also the associate professor in residence and vice chair, VA services, for the Department of Radiation Oncology at UCLA.

Dr. Nickols leadership of not just oncology research, but also of educational and clinical oncology, has put him at the forefront of VA support for President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot and its goal of cutting the death rate from cancer by 50% over the next 25 years.

Dr. Nickols and his team developed the first positron emission tomography imaging program within the Veterans Health Administration and demonstrated its value at a molecular level in the planning of radiation therapy for prostate cancer.

In addition to his research into using several modes of tumor-directed therapy to treat prostate cancer, Dr. Nickols also helped build a collection of subject matter experts and mentors from across the oncology field to form GLA’s Prostate Cancer Clinical Research Team.

In fact, Dr. Nickols serves on no less than 20 committees, boards and task groups, acting as a hub of collaboration from the local level to the federal and ranging in influence from academic institutions to nationwide organizations. While Dr. Nickols’ main focus is on prostate cancer, he also assists with under-represented groups in the VA, genomic databases, the creation of actively managed portfolios within the Office of Research and Development, and more.

Despite still being in the first decade of his VA career, Dr. Nickols has already made his presence felt across the spectrum of this nation’s living healthcare system, and all signs point that the significant impacts he has made in oncology so far are just the first few of many more to come.

Dr. Samantha Connolly, Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research
VA Boston Healthcare System

Dr. Samantha Connolly

Dr. Samantha Connolly

Dr. Samantha Connolly is a health services researcher at the VA Boston Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research (CHOIR). Dr. Connolly is also an assistant professor at Harvard’s Medical School Department of Psychiatry.

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, perhaps no innovation in healthcare has been as significant and widespread as the development of telehealth care and virtual sessions, many of which never would have happened without Dr. Connolly championing the use of this technology in the VA.

Dr. Connolly’s research demonstrated that the effectiveness of telehealth care was well worth the logistical challenges that came with it, and her work has influenced national decision-making to create, maintain, and continue the use of video telehealth platforms for the foreseeable future.

Over the past three years, Dr. Connolly has delivered more than 30 presentations of her findings to local, regional, national, and international audiences, and her work has been cited in everything from US Senate committee hearings to Time magazine. Dr. Connolly has also been published in several high impact medical journals, such as American Psychologist, and her work has been cited more than 1,000 times over the past three years.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Connolly and her team have analyzed data from thousands of VA providers and millions of Veterans to understand both the effectiveness of virtual care and the potential barriers in its use that have needed to be overcome. Her work in the field of telehealth has benefited tens of thousands of veterans in rural areas, whose physical distance from VA facilities once made healthcare impractical, or even impossible.

Furthermore, as a clinical psychologist in VA’s Boston Healthcare System, Dr. Connolly regularly witnesses the positive impact of telehealth firsthand – as she uses it to provide mental health treatment with her own patients.

While in many ways Dr. Connolly is just beginning her career in the VA, her desire to increase veterans’ access to the highest quality care delivered in the right place and at the right time has already made a massive impact on millions of Veterans across the country.

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