Departure of Esteemed Faculty Member Wendy Chung

May 1, 2023
wendy chung photo by JORG MEYER

Credit: Jorg Meyer

As Wendy Chung, MD, PhD, prepares to leave Columbia University and embark on her new role as Chief of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital, we want to take a moment to express our deep appreciation for all she has done for the Irving Institute. Her contributions to the university and to healthcare are immeasurable, and we are sure her impact will only continue to grow.

Dr. Chung currently serves as Kennedy Family Professor of Pediatrics (in Medicine), Chief of Clinical Genetics Division in the Department of Pediatrics, the Medical Director of Columbia’s Genetic Counseling Graduate Program, Associate Director for Education, Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Co-Director of the Precision Medicine Resource within the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research.

Her research at Columbia has advanced the understanding of genetic disorders and led to the development of new treatments for some of these conditions. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Chung’s work in the clinic and the laboratory has transformed healthcare for patients with rare diseases and led to the discovery of more than 50 novel genetically-defined diseases. She has focused on understanding the genetic basis of human disease, including congenital heart disease, congenital diaphragmatic hernia, pulmonary hypertension, and autism. Notably, her leadership in the study of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been instrumental in identifying specific genes and genetic pathways that contribute to the development of the understanding of ASD. She is developing treatments for rare neurogenetic conditions using tailor made antisense oligonucleotides. She has also transformed pediatric care with successful pilot studies of newborn screening for spinal muscular atrophy, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and now GUARDIAN (Genomic Uniform screening Against Rare Disorders In All Newborns).

In addition to her research, Dr. Chung is an accomplished educator and advocate in her field. She has worked to raise awareness about rare diseases, genetic disorders and promote the importance of genetic testing and counseling. She was the original plaintiff in the Supreme Court case against gene patents. As the Director of the Clinical Genetics Program at Columbia University and the fundamentals course director of genetics in the P&S Medical School and Columbia Dental School, she trains the next generation of geneticists and physicians and dentists at our medical center. For her exceptional educational capabilities and commitment, in 2009 she received Columbia University’s highest teaching award, the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching. Her efforts in the community, the classroom,  and the clinic have helped to improve access to genetic services for people around the world, and have led the development of new resources and programs to support families affected by genetic disorders.

Dr. Chung's research career has been closely associated with the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, Columbia University’s CTSA hub since her days as an early career investigator and faculty member. Wendy first joined the Irving Institute in 2007 as a contributing member of its Internal Advisory Committee, later taking on leadership roles of our TL1 Research Training Program, and is currently the Co-Director of the Precision Medicine Resource and Associate Director of the overall Irving Institute.

The institute supports researchers like Dr. Chung in conducting clinical and translational research that aims to accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into improved clinical practice. It was nearly twenty years ago that she was awarded the prestigious Irving Career Award (now the Irving Scholars Award). At that time, she received a letter of support from John M. Driscoll, Jr., MD, Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics, where he wrote, “Wendy, in my estimation, is the incarnation of what the physician-scientist should stand for: the head-on, relentless and gut-driven engagement of difficult biologic problems in the service of the remediation of human suffering. She is without question headed to the pinnacle of American Medicine and will achieve (and to some extent already has) international notoriety for her superb intellect and gifts to medicine.”

After this award, the CTSA hub has proudly supported her work with four additional awards:

The Multi-PI grant lead to impressive follow-on funding:

  • A $2 million P50 grant for the development of a center to evaluate the impact of early life identification of genomic risk variants for Autism Spectrum Disorder on parent experience, neurodevelopmental trajectories, and prediction of autism diagnosis.
    • “Without the support of the Multi-PI planning grant, we never would have been able to get the team together and handle the massive amount of work needed for the P50 center grant.” – Dr. Chung
    • Not only did the CTSA provide the funding for her 2021 award, they also offered the use of their fully staffed Clinical Research Resource (CRR) for the conduct of participant-oriented research at the medical center campus. The CRR not only includes pediatric inpatient and outpatient units but also supports research nurses/coordinators in other areas of the medical center such as the NICU and PICU.

Dr. Chung expresses the importance of staying committed to the Irving Institute throughout her career, “I’ve been here a long time and learned many things the hard way and wanted to make sure others didn’t have to go through the same struggles-especially the junior faculty and trainees who are launching their careers.” She talks more about the motivation and inspiration behind her work, in the collaborative Narratives of Discovery series by Dr. Rita Charon and the Irving Institute.

Beyond her scientific accomplishments, Dr. Chung is also known for her compassionate approach to patient care. She understands the importance of providing personalized and sensitive care to individuals and families affected by birth defects and neurodevelopmental disorders. Commitment to her patients has earned her numerous accolades and recognitions, including the New York Academy of Medicine Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Biomedical Science and the Rare Impact Award from the National Organization of Rare Disorders. This latter award in 2019 came several years before NORD recognized Columbia as one of 31 national Rare Disease Centers of Excellence under Dr. Chung’s stewardship.

“In academic medicine, many of us strive to be ‘the triple threat: scientist, clinician, teacher.’  Wendy is the quadruple threat: scientist, teacher, clinician, and a wonderful person.  Her only fault is that being all of those, you must get on the zoom at 7am in the morning to speak with her– but it is always worth it.  She is irreplaceable.” - Henry N. Ginsberg, M.D., Past Director of the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research.

As one of the original leaders of the Irving Institute’s Precision Medicine Resource, which was established in 2015, Dr. Chung played a pivotal role in designing the precision medicine focused TL1 training program along with Dr. Ginsberg, the first of its kind on our campus. Between this program and her role as a steadfast mentor for translational geneticists from all disease domains, Dr. Chung has undoubtedly left her mark on Columbia’s next generation of scientists.

“It has been a pleasure and privilege to work with Wendy ever since I joined Columbia in 2016. I had already been aware of her brilliant career, and then came to admire her visionary leadership both at the university and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Her passion for this field is evident in her tireless work ethic and countless contributions to the scientific community and commitment to her patients and their families. My sincere congratulations as this is a much-deserved opportunity for her to continue remarkable impact both nationally and internationally.” – Muredach Reilly, Director, Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, and Vice Dean for Clinical and Translational Research.

In recognition of her groundbreaking work in the field of human genetics, we celebrate Dr. Wendy Chung as she prepares to step down as of May 1, 2023, for her new appointment. Her contributions to this field will surely continue to inspire and inform future generations of researchers, educators, and healthcare providers.

Thank you, Dr. Chung, for your tireless dedication to improving the lives of others.