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SBMI Professor awarded CPRIT grant for research training program

Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS, SBMI Professor and Center for Precision Health Director
Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS, SBMI Professor and Center for Precision Health Director

On May 19, the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced that it awarded $69 million in new academic research and prevention grants for cancer researchers across the state. One recipient is McWilliams School of Biomedical InformaticsProfessor and Center for Precision Health Director Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS, who is also the Endowed Chair of Precision Health at UTHealth.


Zhao was awarded $3,998,553 for his research training project titled “Biomedical Informatics, Genomics, and Translational Cancer Research Training Program (BIG-TCR).” According to CPRIT, the training programs “educate undergraduate and graduate students, clinician trainees, and pre- and post-doctoral fellows thereby preparing the next generation of physician scientists.”


The collaborative BIG-TCR training program aims to provide a highly interactive, innovative, and interdisciplinary environment to train future leaders and cancer researchers. The program will do so by leveraging UTHealth’s strong research programs across all six schools. The training will include competency-based training requirements and focus in the areas of cancer biology, stem cell biology, pharmacology and drug discovery, genomics and other omics programs, health data science, artificial intelligence, clinical informatics, and translational medicine.

“The program will have three different training levels for PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduate summer internship participants,” stated Zhao. “The BIG-TCR team is very excited to give dozens of trainees valuable, hands-on skills in informatics, health data science, drug discovery, and other technologies.”


The BIG-TCR program will create or provide new didactic course work, formalized laboratory and informatics core rotations, dual-mentorship, and a series of career development activities. Trainees will also have exposure to both informatics and wet lab research environments. Early on in their program tenure, trainees will work with mentors to develop an individualized development plan, including course competency, core lab rotations, research project design, travel, grant writing, and long-term career goals.

Jiajie Zhang, PhD, SBMI’s dean and the Glassell Family Foundation Distinguished Chair in Informatics Excellence said, “Dr. Zhao has a long track record in cancer research and education. He will lead his team as they empower the trainees and give them the knowledge to use state-of-the-art informatics, artificial intelligence, and data science technologies.” He continued by noting “those skills will help the participants accelerate the advancement of cancer research and translational cancer medicine which benefits the entire health care community.”


Next steps for the BIG-TCR program are to develop and implement the curriculum and program activities. This will include the creation of a new course focused on the fundamentals of AI in cancer discovery. Other unique features of the program will include peer mentor opportunities, summer Datathons, career development workshops, and standardized evaluation tools to measure quality and effectiveness of the programs for the trainees. The program also aims to be inclusive of all individuals regardless of ethnicity or ability.

“Moving forward, I look forward to launching our program and attaining our recruitment goals as we reach out to potential trainees from underrepresented minority groups,” said Zhao. “Beyond that, we will enhance learning facilities, both physical and distance learning, to meet the unique needs of each participant.”

Zhao is one of two UTHealth faculty members to be awarded a CPRIT training grant. Maria E. Fernández, PhD from the School of Public Health also won a CPRIT training grant focusing on cancer prevention. Both awards will officially start on June 1, 2021.

published on 05/27/2021 at 9:30 a.m.

Chelsea Overstreet

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