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Carrie Cowardin, PhD ’16

September 20, 2021  — The UVA Medical Alumni Association is pleased to announce the recipient of the 2021 Distinguished Achievement Award in Biomedical Sciences: Carrie Cowardin, PhD ’16.

After completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia in 2010 (BS in Biology), Cowardin  remained at UVA to pursue her doctorate in the laboratory of William A. Petri, Jr., PhD ’80, MD ’82, Fel ’88, where she focused on the immune response to Clostridium difficile, a major hospital acquired intestinal infection. There, she identified both bacterial and host factors that mediate disease. Ribotype 027 “hypervirulent” strains of C. difficile express a novel toxin (C. difficile transferase or CDT), which Cowardin found contributed to virulence during murine infection. She identified a novel role for CDT in activating local and systemic inflammation, resulting in a decrease in protective immune cells called eosinophils. This work challenged existing thought on the role of CDT during infection and provided insight into how the increasingly common hypervirulent strains cause disease. Cowardin received the Robert R. Wagner Fellowship from the University of Virginia to support this work. Her findings resulted in ten publications, an awarded patent, and contributed to a funded Research Project Grant (R01) from the National Institutes of Health. Cowardin was recognized for these achievements by Forbes, which listed her as a “30 under 30” for Healthcare in 2017.

Cowardin went on to complete her postdoctoral training with Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, at Washington University in St. Louis. Gordon is a pioneer in the study of the human microbiome, demonstrating causal relationships between the composition of microbiome and states of disease such as obesity and undernutrition. In the Gordon lab, Cowardin explored the ability of gut microbes to influence immune and skeletal development during childhood undernutrition, receiving a Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. In July 2020, Cowardin returned to Charlottesville to begin her independent laboratory as an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics. As the High Value Faculty recruit for UVA’s TransUniversity Microbiome Initiative (TUMI), Cowardin is focused on understanding how the maternal and infant gut microbiome interacts with the immune system to control growth and development, with the goal of developing novel therapies to promote healthy pregnancy and childhood. In July 2021, Cowardin received a Research Project Grant (R01) to continue these studies.

Congratulations to Dr. Cowardin on this well-deserved recognition.