Meet the 2022 CTSI K Scholars

2022 K Scholars with black border.

Pictured, from left: Ajay Gupta, MD, MS; David E. Heppner, PhD; John C. Hu, MD, PhD; Denise Lillvis, PhD, MPA; and John Lillvis, MD, PhD.

Published July 20, 2022

“The CTSI K Scholars’ broad and diverse research interests will enrich our learning and research environment in clinical and translational science.”
Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD.

The University at Buffalo Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) has made 2022 K Scholar Program awards to faculty from UB and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center whose research interests range from childhood cancer to ophthalmology. These researchers are already making an impact through their work in the community. Now, these five individuals join the ranks as CTSI K Scholars.

The CTSI K Scholar Program offers research mentoring, career and professional development, and funding to outstanding junior faculty and senior fellows transitioning to independent faculty positions. In addition, the program aims to promote the development of an interprofessional, interdisciplinary, and ethnically/racially/culturally diverse clinical and translational workforce with skills to meet the healthcare and research needs of our communities, the region and the nation.

The program also facilitates the development of the Scholars’ professional skills and the transition to their next career level within the clinical and translational workforce pipeline.

“We are excited to welcome the 2022 cohort of CTSI K Scholars to our mentored career development award program and to contribute to their research and professional development as they transition to independent careers and join the next generation of clinical and translational research leaders,” said University at Buffalo CTSI K Scholars Program Principal Investigator/Lead and CTSI Workforce Development Core Director Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Their broad and diverse research interests — ranging from cancer science to health equity to the uncovering of novel therapies for the treatment of ophthalmological and infectious diseases — will enrich our learning and research environment in clinical and translational science.”

Visit the CTSI website to see CTSI Scholar Alumni as well as members of the program’s leadership team, steering committee, and mentor pool.

The 2022 cohort of CTSI K Scholars includes:


Ajay Gupta, MD, MS      

Pediatric Oncologist, Roswell Park Oishei Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Program, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center; Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Education and training:

  • MS, Translational Pharmacology, The Ohio State University, 2020
  • MD, Albany Medical College, 2013
  • BA, Biology, English, University of Pennsylvania, 2006

Main research focus: Clinical trials for treatment of children with sarcomas

“I am a translational scientist but foremost a physician — it is my pediatric and young adult patients with sarcomas that drive my work. The goal of my research is to create less toxic, more effective cures for them and provide these via clinical trials that have been workshopped to be more accessible to the community. The K Scholar Program will be vital to the success of this work. It will continue protecting my research time so that I can spend the effort in the lab, in the community, and with my mentors shaping the preclinical data into a feasible early phase clinical trial. For the K Scholar project, I am partnering with Dr. Pawel Kalinski and Dr. Anurag Singh to see if dendritic cells, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy can provide a cure in pediatric and adolescent/young adult (AYA) sarcomas, starting with mice. I am working with Dr. Elizabeth Bouchard and Dr. Kara Kelly to better understand any barriers to access for the planned clinical trial. Finally, the K Scholar Program has myriad supports in place and additional mentorship and education to ensure that I am both a successful and better well-rounded scientist after completing the program.”


David E. Heppner, PhD

Jere Solo Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences

Education and training:

  • Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Medicinal Chemistry and Structural Biology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, 2017-20
  • NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Vermont, 2014-2017
  • PhD, Bioinorganic Chemistry, Stanford University, 2014
  • BS, Chemistry, University of Minnesota, 2007

Main research focus: The discovery and development of small-molecule drug candidates to treat a variety of human diseases

“Within the Department of Chemistry, our research group conducts drug synthesis, biochemical and cell-based testing, and the determination of drug-receptor 3D binding modes with X-ray crystallography. As a CTSI K Scholar, I am positioned to gain expertise in clinical and translational research of kinase-targeting agents and opportunities to build essential collaborations and resources to swiftly initiate pre-clinical evaluations of our molecules. Ultimately, the career-development opportunities and research support from this award will allow us to significantly shorten the timeframes for new drug clinical evaluation.”


John C. Hu, MD, PhD

Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; Physician, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, VA Western New York Health Care System

Education and training:

  • Infectious Disease Fellowship, University at Buffalo, 2020-22
  • Internal Medicine Residency, University at Buffalo, 2017-20
  • MD/PhD, Medicine/Microbiology and Immunology, University at Buffalo, 2017
  • BS, Biomedical Sciences, University at Buffalo, 2008

Main research focus: The role of extracellular vesicles in the pathogenesis and progression of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

“It is an absolute honor to be selected for the 2022 CTSI K Scholars Program. I am thrilled to be part of this community that not only strives for excellence in translational research but also one that emphasizes diversity and inclusiveness. My research goal is to better understand the interactions between extracellular vesicles, the immune system, and the microbial landscape in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The support, training, and mentorship provided will be instrumental as I progress in my career as a physician-scientist and transition to an independently funded investigator."


Denise Lillvis, PhD, MPA              

Assistant Professor, Division of Health Services Policy and Practice, Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, School of Public Health and Health Professions

Education and training:

  • NRSA Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Primary Care Research Institute, University at Buffalo, 2017-20
  • PhD, Health Services Organization and Policy and Political Science, University of Michigan, 2017
  • MPA, Public Administration, University of Pennsylvania, 2007
  • BA, History, Swarthmore College, 2003

Main research focus: Child health services research

“My research focuses on children and youth with special healthcare needs. This includes individuals with asthma, autism, mental health concerns, and other chronic conditions. My research goal is to understand how special healthcare needs status leads to differences in emergency care and hospital outcomes following physical trauma. Additionally, I will examine whether social factors such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status moderate these differences. The support of the CTSI through the K Scholar Program is critical to achieving these goals through dedicated research time, resources, and mentorship.”


John Lillvis, MD, PhD     

Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Ophthalmology, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Education and training:

  • Fellowship, Pediatric Ophthalmology and Adult Strabismus, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, 2017
  • Residency, Ophthalmology, Kresge Eye Institute/Detroit Medical Center, 2016
  • Internship, Transitional Year, St. John Hospital and Medical Center, 2013
  • MD, Wayne State University School of Medicine, 2012
  • PhD, Molecular Biology and Genetics, Wayne State University School of Medicine, 2012
  • BA, Chemistry and Religion, Swarthmore College, 2003

Main research focus: Epidemiology and genetics of pediatric eye disease and strabismus

“As a pediatric ophthalmologist, I am interested in understanding the factors contributing to the diagnosis and treatment of pediatric eye disease and adult strabismus (eye misalignment), with the goal of improving patient care. I am honored to be chosen as part of this year’s CTSI K Scholar Program, where I will study the epidemiology of strabismus in the national Veterans Administration system. Participation in the K Scholar Program will help me to develop an independent research program through its training and mentorship in research design, methods, and grant writing.”