Medical researcher wins highest presidential award

    Feinberg School of Medicine professor Carla Pugh’s pioneering research in biomedical engineering earned her the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) on Tuesday.

    The Executive Office of the President awards the PECASE to young professionals for innovative research in science or technology. It’s the highest award scientific researchers like Pugh can receive early in their careers. Nominees must not only contribute to the nation’s knowledge on a particular subject, but also show promise in community-focused research in the future.

    The recognition came as a surprise for Pugh, who is working to develop the first physical test to measure physicians’ ability to detect breast cancer from clinical exams.

    “It was sort of unreal,” said Pugh. “I mean, you do your research and you work hard and enjoy your job, and you don’t think that anyone outside of your patients or co-workers notice.”

    Pugh was nominated for the award after receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Only one year into the four-year grant, Pugh and her team are developing sensor-enabled breast exam simulators that could be used to set performance standards for clinical exams.

    President Barack Obama announced this year’s 94 winning researchers in a statement Tuesday. Pugh and the others will be invited to attend an awards ceremony at the White House, where they’ll meet the president.

    “It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers — careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding but also invaluable to the nation,” Obama said.

    Pugh, an associate professor of surgery at Feinberg and director of the center for Advanced Surgical Education, is currently studying which hands-on techniques are most effective in diagnosing cancer. The end goal is to quantify the success of these techniques to make them more effective.

    Outside of the research community, Pugh hosts interns and speaks at science fairs and commencements to help jumpstart the next generation of medical researchers. She also sponsors a Harvard University fellowship program for medical students on track to do research in surgical education.

    The National Library of Medicine recently featured Pugh for her accomplishments as an educator and medical researcher in an exhibit called “Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Surgeons.”


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