Four of the newly named Avedisian professors (standing, from left): David Harris, Andrew Taylor, [Karen Antman, BU medical school dean], Toby Chai, and Rachel Fearns (missing from photo is Hee-Young Park); representing named professorships (seated, from left): Housepian spokesperson Jean Housepian, Sarkis Kechejian, donor Pamela Avedisian, Richard Babayan, and Carolann Najarian. Photo courtesy of the Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. (Dr. Ernest Barsamian is missing from photo) (Frank Curran photo)

Five New Professorships Created at BU Medical School as Part of Avedisian, Chobanian Gift

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By Doug Fraser

BOSTON — Five faculty at the Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine have been named as the newest recipients of Edward Avedisian Professorships, which are funded out of the transformational $100 million gift from the late Edward Avedisian (CFA’59,’61, Hon.’22) and his wife Pamela (Hon.’23) in 2022 that also resulted in the renaming of the school.

From the $100 million gift, $25 million was specifically designated to fund professorships. In 2023, Nancy Sullivan, the director of BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), and Venetia (Vanna) Zachariou, chair of pharmacology, physiology and biophysics, were installed as the inaugural professorship recipients. The ceremony to honor the second round of professorships was held on March 12.

“We’re abidingly grateful to Ed and to Pamela Avedisian for their generosity and the recognition that a great medical school is a precious renewable resource for our society and for the world,” said Boston University President ad interim Kenneth Freeman in a statement.

Toby Chai, a professor and chair of urology, was named the inaugural Richard K. Babayan, MD, Professor of Urology. Babayan, a professor emeritus and former chair of urology, retired in 2022 after 43 years at the school. A recipient of numerous awards, he was the first in Boston to do a robot-assisted radical prostatectomy in 2005.

“I’m humbled by this experience and very grateful,” said Babayan, who introduced Chai, the urologist in chief at Boston Medical Center and president of Boston University Medical Center Urologists, Inc., at the ceremony. Chai held the John D. Young Professorship in Urology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and was vice chair of research in urology at Yale University School of Medicine.

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Before the March 12 event, Babayan expressed his gratitude for the honor and fondly recalled his time at BU as well as connection to Dr. Chobanian.

“I spent my entire academic career at BU and first met Aram Chobanian in 1977 when I started my urology residency. We became close friends over the years as he ascended to dean and then president of BU. After residency, I joined the BU Urology Faculty in 1980 and rose to the rank of professor and then became Chairman of the Department of Urology from 2000 until 2019. I became the first Armenian to be elected President of the American Urological Association in 2017,” he said.

He added, “Dr. Chobanian was a role model for me, and we became close friends and colleagues at BU and for many years worked together on various Armenian medical outreach initiatives such as the BU – Armenia Medical Partnership program.”

He also had warm words for the late Avedisian.

“Ed Avedisian, a distinguished musician, noted for his philanthropic work in Armenia, called me two weeks prior to the announcement of his $100 million donation to rename the School of Medicine. Ed wished to make me aware of his plan to rename the medical school in honor of Dr. Chobanian, his childhood friend and neighbor. He also informed me that he intended to establish a professorship in my name, for my accomplishments in Urology as well as my medical outreach for Armenia. Although I retired on December 31, 2023 after a 43-year career as a urological surgeon, shortly after the renaming of the medical school, I am most proud and grateful for my relationship with these two extraordinary luminaries and am honored by this recognition which Ed Avedisian has so generously bestowed upon me at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine,” he concluded.

Edward Avedisian, left, and Dr. Aram Chobanian

Chai, who titled his remarks, “Gratitude with a Purpose,” said the professorship was about more than one person. “It really is to help our department continue our academic mission to make it the best that it can be,” he said.

Rachel Fearns, chair of virology, immunology, and microbiology, was named the Ernest Barsamian, MD, Professor. Barsamian grew up poor in Syria, became a professor of surgery and faculty dean at Harvard Medical School, invented one of the early heart-lung machines, and was the chair of cardiac and thoracic surgery, chair of surgical services and chief of staff at the Boston VA Medical Center.

“From the earliest days of his medical career, our father worked tirelessly to balance leading edge prowess in medicine, particularly surgery, with the compassion and humanity that marks the successful physician,” said his son, Peter Barsamian.

From the UK, Fearns holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. Her research focuses on the transcription and replication of RNA viruses, like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and emerging pathogens like the Marburg, Ebola, and Nipah viruses. Fearns frequently works with the pharmaceutical industry on small molecule polymerase inhibitors that help fight diseases by inhibiting their functionality. “It’s such an honor to be the inaugural Barsamian chair. I’m excited to take this on,” said Fearns. “My parents are educators and they imbued in me the sense that education (allows) you to make choices in life.” She thanked her mentors, including Ronald Corley, recently retired as chair of virology, immunology, and microbiology, who, she said, “built a wonderful department here,” and the department faculty who have helped to mentor her students and elevate her science.

Hee-Young Park, a professor and chair of medical sciences and education, professor of dermatology, and associate dean for faculty affairs, was named the Carolann S. Najarian, MD, Professor. Najarian (CAMED’80) worked most of her career in private practice. In response to the devastating 1988 Armenian earthquake, she established the Armenian Health Alliance, delivering medicine and medical supplies, established a primary care center and a center for expectant women. She was assistant medical director at Middlesex County Hospital and an instructor in clinical medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“I know this chair will add significantly to the education of students here, enriching their medical education and preparing them to go out into a culturally diverse world to care for patients,” Najarian said.

In comments before the event, Najarian said the news of the professorship was unexpected. “I was shocked upon reading the email I received from Laurie Onanian informing me that my name would bear one of the five professorships endowed through the major gift made by the late Edward Avedisian and his wife, Pamela, to the then BU School of Medicine. I was of course thrilled by this news and greatly honored. I knew both Edward (whom I admired greatly) and Dr. Aram Chobani an, who was a close friend and mentor,” she said.

“I first met Aram in the early 1970s when I was 32 years old and he was a faculty member at BU. I had heard about an Armenian doctor at BU who might be able to advise me on whether to pursue a career in medicine. He was gracious enough to take time from his busy schedule to meet with me. We talked nearly an hour. I asked if someone like myself, with a degree in music and a varied work background, should even dream about becoming a physician. He gave me an unequivocal yes and so I continued my studies and application process.   We became good friends over the years and after the earthquake in Armenia his remarkable wife, Jasmine, was at my house everyday manning the phones helping to coordinate the relief effort. I couldn’t be more proud than to have this honor in both these great men,” she concluded.

Park said it took a global community to raise her and get her to where she is today. Born in Korea, she credited her father with believing that education was for all, including women. Arriving in Arkansas at age 15, by herself, to pursue science education, Park said she was grateful to the Blyholder family in Fayetteville, Ark., who sponsored and hosted her.

“Today would not be possible without friends, families, and colleagues,” said Park.

Andrew Taylor, associate dean of research and a professor and vice chair of research in ophthalmology, was named the Sarkis J. Kechejian, MD, Professor. He is an internationally known researcher in ocular immune privilege, ocular autoimmune disease, and the role of melanocortin pathways in regulating inflammation and immunity. He thanked the Avedisian family, his family, students, colleagues, and research collaborators, and gave a tribute to his mentors, J. Wayne Streilein and Joan Stein-Streilein.

Kechejian (CAMED’63) is the president of K Clinics in Texas, CEO and chairman of Alliance Health, and president of the Kechejian Foundation. He said his mother taught him “the necessity of being involved in the community… and instilled in me the concern for helping others.”

He has been a longtime advocate for increased scholarships for BU medical students, especially to ease the financial considerations that exacerbated a chronic shortage of primary care physicians and other nonsurgical specialties, and is a recipient of the BU medical school’s Distinguished Alumnus Award for Service to the School. The 2022 Avedisian gift included $50 million for student scholarships, and Kechejian said the scholarship fund has grown from $5 million in 1996 to $150 million today.

Speaking before the event, Kechejian said that his connection to Avedisian and Chobanian went back 60 years. He recalled that he met Chobanian when the latter was a research fellow in hypertension, and Avedisian was studying for a master’s in fine arts from BU.

“Aram was a mentor and lifelong friend,” he said, as was Avedisian.

He added that Avedisian called him two years before his massive donation to the School of Medicine in his friend’s name was announced. “He told me he wanted to honor his lifelong friend Aram

The Edgar Minas Housepian, MD, Professorship went to David A. Harris, chair of biochemistry and cell biology since 2009. He studies molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying human neurodegenerative diseases. His work on infectious prion diseases like mad cow disease, where brain proteins fold and can result in neurodegenerative effects, has helped research into other neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.

“What I want to highlight here is the incredible foresight to use that endowment ($25 million of the Avedisian endowment is dedicated to research and teaching) to support basic research, which is…always at the root of great medical discoveries,” said Harris. “I am honored to be associated with a legacy that values the pursuit of knowledge and scientific excellence.”

Housepian was a renowned neurosurgeon at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and professor of neurology at Columbia University’s medical school, where he taught for 44 years.

“He was a very creative person with a long-range vision,” said his daughter, Jean Housepian. Even with a career that began in labs, then surgery, education remained his key concern, and in his retirement years, he remained an advocate for international educational affiliations for medical students.

In comments before the event, Jean Housepian said she was “flabbergasted” to hear of the professorship.

“My father was born, raised and educated in New York City. His parents were survivors of the genocide. His father Moses M Housepian was an American-trained physician who returned to Armenia in 1916 to minister aid during the height of the genocide to refugees as they were marched through the desert to nowhere. His mother was on the Board of the AGBU in New York for 30 years. He spent his entire 60+ year medical career at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center’s (CPMC) Neurological Institute. But he had a very broad world view and made friends easily with people and colleagues around the globe. At CPMC he created and ran a well-attended continuing education neuroscience board review course for over 30 years. He made sure it was affordable for any doctor who signed up. He became well known in the local Armenian community as genuine, kind, and caring spirit. He was an excellent listener,” she noted.

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating 1988 earthquake in Armenia, he, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian from the Eastern Diocese and the developer Kevork Hovnanian, flew to Armenia to assess the situation. They ended up starting the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), which continues to operate today.

In addition, she said, her father “helped create ‘fellowships’ for Armenian physicians and nurses to come to America for an average of 3 months and upgrade their skills and knowledge with one-on-one training with their American counterparts. Over a two-year period, more than 90 doctors enjoyed this FAR-sponsored fellowship program and returned to Armenia to share their new knowledge with their Armenian colleagues. Several of them later became Minsters of Health and Directors of major hospitals in Armenia. This program has had a lasting impact on improving the delivery of quality healthcare in Armenia.”

It was around this time that her father first met Dr. Chobanian. “As the Dean of the Medical School at BU, Dr. Chobanian was able to facilitate placement of physicians and nurses at BU for FAR sponsored fellowship training. Through this introduction, Dr. Chobanian and my father became the closest of friends,” she added.

In 2010 Dr. Housepian and Dr. Chobanian created the landmark “Combatting Childhood Malnutrition” for FAR.

She concluded, “Dr. Chobanian and my father were both brilliant, creative, broad-minded physicians, humanitarians and visionaries. Together they formed a powerful and positive presence on the Board of FAR through which they created programs that have transformed the lives of Armenians and will continue to have a positive impact on generations to come.”

Freeman noted that the five endowed chairs did not bear the Avedisian name, but had been selected to honor others.

“We chose to name these professorships to honor individuals who not only achieved great success in their medical careers, but [also] have continually used that success to help others,” said Pamela Avedisian. “We want them to inspire the current and future generations of medical students.”

In her comments, she noted how Avedisian had grown up in a family that while not well off, saw service to others as their obligation and that this donation was another extension of that generosity. The trappings of wealth never interested him, she added, joking, “He used to embarrass me when he would wear pants with holes or shirts that were falling apart.”

She also paid tribute to Chobanian, noting that like her late husband, the former dean “grew up in a loving Armenian family.”

“In medicine, we often say that we stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Karen Antman, dean of BU’s medical school and provost of the Medical Campus, who chaired the installation ceremony.

(Doug Fraser is a School of Medicine public relations associate. Alin K. Gregorian contributed to this story.)

 

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