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Zabner receives 2023 Distinguished Mentor Award

Date: Tuesday, August 8, 2023
2023 Distinguished Mentor Award Ceremony

Join us to celebrate Dr. Zabner's achievement on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023 at 3 p.m. The ceremony will take place in Prem Sahai Auditorium, 1110A Medical Education Facility, with reception to follow in the MERF Atrium.

This year's Distinguished Mentor Lecture will be delivered by William G. Kaelin Jr., MD, 2019 Nobel Laureate and Sidney Farber Professor of Medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

When Joseph Zabner arrived in Iowa for his fellowship in pulmonary disease research, he didn’t plan to stay long.

That was 33 years ago.

“I fell in love with the people,” Zabner says.

Originally from Venezuela, Zabner has had an impressive career as a physician-scientist. In the early 1990s, he led the first human gene therapy trials for cystic fibrosis using a modified adenovirus. In June 2020, he co-led a UI Health Care team that established one of the nation’s first clinics for patients experiencing ongoing symptoms of COVID-19. He served as director of the pulmonary, critical care, and occupational medicine division in the UI Department of Internal Medicine from 2010 through 2021. He is a member of the American Society of Clinical Investigation, Association of American Physicians, and American Clinical and Climatological Association.

Zabner also is well-known for inspiring colleagues, students, and trainees. Many letters of support for his Distinguished Mentor Award nomination note his ability to spark interest and excitement about research.

“Joe could always be counted on for seeing the bright, or even the lighthearted, side of the frequently frustrating or mundane tasks science requires,” wrote Egon A. Ozer, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University.

In addition to keeping science exciting, many former learners emphasized how Zabner is generous with his time, even after students have left the UI.

“After joining the faculty at WSU, I have called, emailed, or texted Joe numerous times for advice,” says Katherine Excoffon, PhD, adjunct professor at Wright State University and vice president of research for Spirovant Sciences Inc.

It's in the DNA of the medical school to recruit young people with potential and help them grow.

Whether on a walk with a current mentee or giving advice to someone he mentored years ago, Zabner can be counted on to provide guidance—and keep nudging people forward. He’s often the first to ask, “But what will you do next?”

His approach has helped fuel the success for others. David A. Stoltz, MD, PhD, who succeeded Zabner as division director, noted in his nomination letter that Zabner’s has been the primary mentor for four National Institutes of Health career development award-winners and three fellows who have received the prestigious Parker B. Francis Pulmonary Fellowship Award.

Being open to new ideas and encouraging young professionals to move forward in their careers is something Zabner feels passionate about. It’s one of the main reasons he’s stayed at Iowa all these years.

“It’s in the DNA of the medical school to recruit young people with potential and help them grow,” he says.

Now that Zabner is being honored for his positive influence on the careers of numerous physicians, researchers, and others, it’s important to him to recognize two doctors who shaped his career. One of them is the late Roberto Sánchez-de León, MD, PhD, Zabner’s mentor at his first research job when he was just out of medical school. Another is Carver College of Medicine colleague Michael Welsh, MD, whom he still works with today.

“Dr. Welsh taught me how to be rigorous but also to enjoy and laugh,” Zabner says.