The recognition is one of the highest in the medical field.
Henri Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean and chief academic officer of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has been elected to the prestigious National Academy of Medicine (NAM) — an honor that reflects his remarkable professional achievements and commitment to service in health and medicine.
Omaida Velazquez, M.D., FACS, professor and chair, DeWitt Daughtry Family Department of Surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has also been elected to the NAM. A renowned surgeon-scientist and the first Hispanic woman to lead a U.S. academic department of surgery, Dr. Velazquez was recognized for her groundbreaking contributions to peripheral vascular disease and wound healing.
Membership in the NAM is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine, recognizing individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievements and commitment to service. The NAM announced the names of new members on October 17 at its annual meeting.
Dean Ford and Dr. Velazquez join the ranks of seven other University of Miami faculty who are academy members: Julio Frenk, University president and professor; Donna E. Shalala, former UM president and professor; Margaret Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Professor of Human Genomics and director of the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics; Diana D. Cardenas, M.D., M.H.A., professor emeritus; Mary Bartlett Bunge, Ph.D., professor emeritus; Guillermo J. Prado, Ph.D., vice provost for faculty affairs, dean of the Graduate School, and professor of nursing and health studies, public health sciences, and psychology; and Ralph L. Sacco, M.D., M.S., professor and chair of neurology and the Olemberg Family Chair of Neurological Disorders.
Dean Recognized for His Charismatic, Mission-driven Leadership and Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Since joining the Miller School in 2018, Dean Ford has focused on developing the next generation of transformative leaders who will shape the future of medicine, direct health systems to deliver value-based care, and champion discovery and its translation into clinical interventions to improve the health of humanity.
“I am humbled by this incredible honor, which reflects the Miller School’s commitment to excellence that characterizes our faculty, staff, students, and trainees every day,” said Dean Ford. “We hold ourselves to the highest standard in medicine, while advancing our mission of transforming lives through education, research, innovation, and service.”
The academy recognized Dean Ford’s accomplishments, citing his “charismatic, mission-driven leadership.” The announcement added, “His extraordinary administrative skills catalyzed cultural change, financial turnaround, and innovative curricular reform, training the next generation of physicians and physician-scientists while promoting health equity.”
A Remarkable Career
Born in Haiti as the sixth of nine children, Dean Ford left with his family in 1972, settling among the Haitian community in Brooklyn and going on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
At Harvard, he quickly realized that he could make the biggest impact as a physician by becoming a pediatric surgeon. “When you operate on a newborn with a surgical emergency, you know that if you don’t intervene, that child is going to die,” Dean Ford said. “And because of your intervention, you are adding potentially 85 to 90 years to that child’s life expectancy. That is truly priceless.”
While completing a fellowship in pediatric surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dean Ford began studying necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease that often kills premature babies despite aggressive medical and surgical intervention. His research group made discoveries that could lead to new interventions.
Continuing his focus on helping children in the U.S. and in his native country, Dean Ford in 2015 performed the first separation of conjoined twins in Haiti, leading a team of surgeons in separating 6-month-old infants Marian and Michelle Bernard. Since then, he has continued to travel to Haiti, where he treats patients and trains medical students and faculty at the Université de la Fondation Dr. Aristide in Port-au-Prince.
Joining the Miller School
In 2018, Dean Ford left the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California to take his “dream job” as dean at the Miller School.
“As I reflect on my journey in American medicine, I feel that I’ve been preparing all my life to assume what is an incredibly important role,” said Dean Ford at the time of his appointment. “As a physician-scientist, physician-educator, and administrator, I feel that I must establish a culture of excellence in scientific research and promote the translation of discoveries into interventions that will transform lives, build healthier communities, and improve global health.”
At the Miller School, Dean Ford has led the transition to the NextGenMD curriculum, which involves small-group learning, early application of clinical skills, and an emphasis on dual degrees and scholarly pathways. “We are already generating impressive results in shaping students who are ready to tackle complex health challenges and create meaningful change,” he said.
In the past three years, Dean Ford guided the school’s education, clinical, and research programs through the COVID pandemic into today’s hybrid environment by incorporating both virtual and in-person communication and collaboration. He has also been an active promoter of health equity initiatives such as the Medical Scholars Program, which supports underrepresented students who are interested in becoming physicians. In 2020, he launched the Task Force on Racial Justice, committing the Miller School to embracing anti-racism practices and promoting diversity and inclusion.
Last year, Dean Ford launched the Dean’s Research Excellence Award in Medicine (DREAM) scholarship program as part of the school’s commitment to train future physician-scientists. Dean Ford has also served as a mentor and role model for medical students, with a focus on underrepresented minorities. The Association for Academic Surgery recently honored him by establishing the Henri Ford Fellowship Award to support underrepresented minority researchers.
In 2021, Dean Ford received the Arnold Salzberg Mentorship Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Excellence in Education Award from the National Medical Fellowship. His other honors include being named chair of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Council of Deans and receiving the AAMC’s Gold Humanism in Medicine Award. Dean Ford belongs to more than 30 societies and is a fellow of several, including the American College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Surgeons (England), and the American Academy of Pediatrics. He is past president of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons, the Association for Academic Surgery, the Surgical Infections Society, and the American Pediatric Surgical Association.
Chair of Surgery Recognized for Her Scientific Contributions to Peripheral Vascular Disease and Wound Healing
“It is truly a privilege to join the growing number of academy members from the Miller School,” said Dr. Velazquez, who is the David Kimmelman Endowed Chair in Vascular and Endovascular Surgery and surgeon-in-chief for the University of Miami Health System and Jackson Health Systems. She holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Radiology and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
For more than a decade, Dr. Velazquez has focused her transformational research on restoring blood flow to dying or damaged tissues affected by peripheral artery disease, diabetes, or other conditions.
“Major arteries with blockages can be treated by surgical bypass or interventional endovascular procedures, but the underlying cardiovascular disease continues to progress,” she said. “Moreover, surgery is not possible on the micro-vessels in tissues, so new therapies involving genes/stem cells are needed to restore circulation and potentially reverse the damage.”
Dr. Velazquez and her research partner, Zhao-Jun Liu, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the Vascular Research Laboratory in the Department of Surgery, spent many years looking at the molecular factors that influence cells’ ability to repair vascular damage. Some vascular repair pathways intercept with those regulating response to infection, inflammation, and clotting. While most researchers looked at signaling pathways involving soluble circulating or interstitial factors, such as hormones or cytokines, Dr. Velazquez and her team focused on cell membrane-bound molecules that mediate direct communication between the cells; they found that E-Selectin — a vascular adhesion molecule on the surface of the cells — played a critical role in the blood vessels’ regeneration and ultimate tissue healing.
“This was a transformative discovery,” said Dr. Velazquez. “Rather than treat vascular diseases with invasive therapies at the end stage, we hope to develop an injectable therapy that would prevent or ameliorate the disease. Such a strategy would not be exclusive to the arms and legs, because damage to the vascular system also affects the heart, brain, kidneys and other organs, and non-healing diabetic wounds, and other organs. In fact, an effective therapy to restore tissue-level circulation could prevent limb amputations in diabetic patients around the world.”
To advance their discovery, Drs. Velazquez and Liu founded Ambulero, Inc., a cell and gene therapy spinout of the University of Miami that is developing new therapeutic products to fight vascular disease.
Recognizing the importance of her work, the National Academy of Medicine cited Dr. Velazquez “for her pioneering research that identified E-Selectin as a membrane-bound adhesion molecule that induces pro-angiogenesis and healing, in a vascular medicine field where previously, only soluble factors had been considered therapeutic candidates. Her groundbreaking work ushered a paradigm-shifting platform to reverse tissue damage by arterial occlusion or diabetes.”
A Passion for Academic Medicine
Born in Cuba, Dr. Velazquez came to the United States with her family in 1980 on the Mariel boatlift. Although the 14-year-old spoke no English, she was determined to become a physician. Living in New Jersey, she majored in chemical biology at the Stevens Institute of Technology and enrolled at New Jersey Medical School on a scholarship, graduating first in her class.
“I was always thinking about a career in academic medicine, and enrolled in a seven-year program at the University of Pennsylvania that included two years of dedicated research training,” said Dr. Velazquez, who received the university’s 1997 Jonathan E. Rhoads Research Award. After completing her internship, residency, and vascular surgery fellowship, she joined the Penn faculty in 1999 as its first female vascular surgeon. She later became the first female University of Pennsylvania Distinguished Graduate awardee in the department of surgery, in 2015.
In 2007, Dr. Velazquez left Philadelphia to continue her scientific-surgical career at UM. “It was a great fit for me professionally and personally, as I was raising a young family and my parents are here,” she said.
Since joining the faculty, Dr. Velazquez has been able to pursue her passions for research, teaching, and clinical care. “When I see a surgical patient, I am 100% focused on that individual and the family,” she said. “I cherish that clinical work, and every morning, I look forward to providing them with the therapies they need now, as well as hope for a brighter day in the future.”
A Productive Career
Dr. Velazquez’s own research has been continuously funded by major grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 2002. Her work has focused on angiogenesis, wound healing, and atherosclerosis, and current funding includes a three-year, $1 million award for “Novel Gene Therapy for Critical Limb Ischemia and Limb Salvage in Vascular Occlusive Disease.”
Dr. Velazquez has written or co-authored more than 150 journal articles in high-impact scientific journals. Her H-index is 45. She has served on editorial boards of three academic journals and as an external peer reviewer for many others. She has also served on multiple NIH study sections and panels.
Dr. Velazquez belongs to more than 30 professional organizations, including the American Surgical Association and the Southern Surgical Association (SSA), both composed of the nation’s leading surgeons. In 2009, she was inducted into the American Society for Clinical Investigators, and in 2021 she was named treasurer of the SSA. She also serves as board chair of the Life Alliance Organ Procurement Agency and is past chair of the Florida Vascular Society’s JJ Karmacharya Foundation.
Recent honors and awards include a State of New Jersey Senate Citation for “Illustrious Medical Career and Research in Peripheral Vascular Disease.” She was also the keynote scholar at Baylor College of Medicine’s 2022 research symposium and received the University of Michigan’s Conrad Jobst Lecture Award in 2019.
In addition, Ana Mari Cauce, Ph.D., a University of Miami alumna and president of the University of Washington, was also elected to the academy. Dr. Cauce was a speaker and received an honorary doctor of humane letters during University of Miami’s commencement exercises in May 2015.