The Fellows A Closer Look

The Fellowship Program

The unique, collaborative environment of the American Heart Association’s Strategically Focused Research Network in Prevention mentored, trained and supported 12 fellows to pursue research and/or clinical careers in prevention.

These fellows met with basic, clinical and population scientists across all four centers as they conducted research that furthered the field of cardiovascular disease and stroke prevention. They also had multiple opportunities to advance their careers by networking and presenting research at the AHA Research Leaders Academy and other AHA conferences and meetings that draw scientists and clinicians from across the globe.

The benefits extended far beyond the two years of participation to support career development and independent research. Several of the fellows, including Aseel Alsouqi, M.D., Ana Victoria Soto, M.D., Serpil Muge Deger, M.D. and Yuichiro Yano, M.D., Ph.D., have multiple publications to their name. Others, such as Rodrigo FernandezJimenez, M.D., and Abbi Lane-Cordova, Ph.D., received awards from the AHA and other organizations for their research.

Gabriele Schiattarella, M.D., and Michinari Hieda, M.D. obtained additional fellowships and funding as a result of their scientific contributions during the training period. Jason Foss, Ph.D., is now a scientist in the biotech industry, and many others have moved into tenure-track positions, where they intend to continue their prevention research.

Victor Wenze Zhong, Ph.D

Northwestern University
SFRN Prevention Fellow, 2017-2019

Victor Wenze Zhong was a fifth-year Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill when he learned about the Prevention SFRN Fellowship at Northwestern University.

He had already been planning to pursue postdoctoral research, and he saw this fellowship as a unique opportunity to work with multiple mentors in many disciplines.

“The program sounded fascinating to me,” said Zhong, who earned a Bachelor of Medicine in preventive medicine from Huazhong University in Wuhan, China. “As an international student, there are fewer opportunities for training grants. It is nonprofits like the AHA that make training like this possible.”

Zhong was involved with the population science research carried out by Northwestern’s Prevention SFRN. The work complemented and expanded his interest in metabolics (how food is broken down and transformed into energy), genomics and big data analysis. His fellowship research also created opportunities to network with postdocs who were part of the broader Prevention SFRN and to present his research at Scientific Sessions, the AHA’s annual conference for cardiovascular professionals around the world.

In 2018, Zhong was awarded both the AHA Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Early Career Investigator Award and the AHA Roger R. Williams Award for Genetic Epidemiology and the Prevention and Treatment of Atherosclerosis. He also was a finalist for the AHA Jeremiah and Rose Stamler Research Award for New Investigators.

Zhong is the first or senior author of 12 peer reviewed original research articles and is a co-author of seven additional peer-reviewed articles. He’s also the first author or co-author on 19 research studies that were presented over the past six years at conferences sponsored by the AHA and other organizations.

In July 2019, Zhong moved to Ithaca, New York, to start a tenure-track assistant professor position in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. There he’s pursuing his interest in big data research, using databases with millions of patients as well as metabolic and genomics databases to study how nutrition affects the development of cardiometabolic diseases.

“I would encourage everyone who is looking for some further postdoc training to seize this AHA opportunity,” he said.

Jacqueline Latinac, M.D.

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
SFRN Prevention Fellow, 2014-2016

Jacqueline Latina was a resident in internal medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York when she learned that the AHA had awarded the school one of four Prevention SFRN grants.

Latina jumped at the opportunity to take part in a research program that would look at lifestyle intervention to reduce cardiovascular risk among minority children and adults from diverse and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. She also used her time as an SFRN Fellow to obtain a Masters in Science in biostatistics

For the SFRN research study, Latina helped recruit 562 children ages 3 to 5, plus parents and caregivers, at Harlem preschools. She was also involved with data collection and analyses. All the children took part in a 40-hour curriculum about heart-healthy behaviors. Parents and caregivers were randomly assigned to a control group, a peer support group or individual counseling.

Initial findings, published in the April 30, 2019, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, showed the intervention raised the children’s awareness of healthy behaviors. Those who benefitted most received more than 75% of the curriculum. A paper on the program’s impact on the parents and caregivers was recently accepted for publication.

Latina said she was impressed with the array of programs the AHA created for the SFRN fellows. For example, the two-day invitation-only AHA Research Leaders Academy gave her significant opportunities to network and practice her research presentation skills.

“I met other fellows in the program, who were all amazing and inspiring, and I now have a large network of connections,” Latina said.

In July 2017, Latina started a cardiology fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. There she plans to pursue her interest in preventive cardiology and non-invasive cardiovascular imaging, and continue to contribute to data analyses with her Mount Sinai SFRN Prevention colleagues

She credits the SFRN Fellowship with helping her get the position and for bolstering her ability to work on clinical research.

“As a resident, you are enthusiastic, but you don’t understand all the logistics of actually running a clinical trial, the funding mechanisms, how long things take or the challenges you might face,” Latina said. “Now I feel that I have the skills, technical abilities and understanding to effectively work on a clinical trial and, one day, be a primary investigator."

Ambarish Pandey, MBBS

UT Southwestern Medical Center SFRN Prevention Fellow, 2014-2016

Ambarish Pandey said his experience as an SFRN Prevention Fellow was one of the best training opportunities of his short academic career.

Pandey, who was born in India, moved to the United States in 2010 to begin a fellowship in nanomedicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The following year he started a residency in internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He completed the residency in June 2014 and started his SFRN Fellowship the following month. In 2018, he accepted a position as an assistant professor of cardiology at UT Southwestern.

“The fellowship couldn’t have arrived at a better time in my career,” Pandey said. “We had done a lot of work in the clinic on heart failure, and the SFRN was about heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, so it gave me a perfect opportunity to build on my interest, to learn the skills necessary for population science research and to take it to the next level.”

Since 2013, Pandey has received 10 awards from the AHA. These include the Jay D. Coffman Early Career Investigator Award and the Award for Excellence in Addressing Cardiovascular Health Equity. In 2017, he received the Northwestern Cardiovascular Young Investigator Award. UT Southwestern honored him with the Outstanding Research Mentor Award in 2018.

andey said the SFRN’s multidisciplinary, multi-institutional framework offered significant opportunities to work with clinical researchers at UT Southwestern and collaborate with population scientists at Northwestern. These collaborations also furthered his standing as a physician-researcher; in the last four years he has been the first author of 47 papers stemming from the Prevention SFRN.

Now, he’s heading up his own research program as a principal investigator. In 2018, he received a $750,000 grant from UT Southwestern to study novel approaches to prevent heart failure.

“The fellowship is just an incredible opportunity to study what interests you and to meet people from all different backgrounds,” Pandey said. “I can’t emphasize enough how much I have benefited from being in this program. It has encouraged me to strive for more.”

Aseel Alsouqi, M.D.

Vanderbilt University
SFRN Prevention Fellow, 2016-2018

Dr. Aseel Alsouqi was intrigued when she learned about Vanderbilt University’s Prevention SFRN fellowship.

“It was something new, it wasn’t common and it looked very promising,” said Alsouqi, who was at the university for an away rotation during her last year of medical school.

When the away rotation ended, Alsouqi returned to the University of Jordan Medical School in her hometown of Amman. After earning her degree, she returned to Vanderbilt to start her SFRN Prevention fellowship.

For two years, Alsouqi was part of the SFRN’s clinical research team. She recruited patients for their sodium MRI studies, collected and analyzed data, and composed posters for presentations. Currently, she is preparing a paper for publication.

If the clinical studies continue to show a relationship between decreased salt in body tissue and improved cardiovascular health, the research could lead to new medications to treat high blood pressure, she said.

Now a resident in internal medicine at Vanderbilt, Alsouqi believes her experience as a fellow will help her attain a position as a clinical researcher and continue her research on high blood pressure.

“Being part of that network, working on such good projects and making lots of connections at the AHA and in other departments at Vanderbilt was crucial,” she said. “It’s a great program. You learn a lot, meet a lot of people, do a lot of science and it opens doors for you.”

By creating these opportunities, the program also benefits other researchers working to prevent heart disease.

“The information our research provided will help guide further studies on hypertension,” she said.