Celebrating Excellence: The Inaugural HEAL Director's Awards

Dear HEAL Community,

Last week, we gathered for the Fourth Annual NIH HEAL Initiative Investigator Meeting to take stock of our research amid the evolving crises of opioid overdose, addiction, and pain. This event provides a yearly opportunity to interact with colleagues and meet many new investigators who are part of this large research endeavor. After 2 years of remote-only attendance, seeing 400 HEAL investigators and community partners in person was invigorating! Many more attended virtually. This coming year, there will be even more opportunities to connect via our monthly HEAL Headliners webinar series that will shine a light on the wide array of HEAL-funded projects addressing pain, opioid use disorder, overdose, and the important intersections between those topics.

Real improvements for people affected by pain and opioids are in view, made possible based upon the hard work of our incredible research community. In recognition of these accomplishments, we debuted the NIH HEAL Initiative Director’s Awards for advancing the HEAL mission in four key dimensions: research excellence, interdisciplinary science, mentoring, and community partnerships. Of note, the new HEAL Trailblazer Award recognizes HEAL-funded scientists in the early to middle stages of their careers who are breaking ground and expanding research in new directions.

HEAL Trailblazers

Showcasing the innovative science aimed at preventing and treating pain, addiction, and mental illness, we chose five winners and 10 honorable mentions for the Trailblazer Award (see the full list).

  • Meredith Adams uses a range of strategies in her informatics research, including economic analysis, machine learning and artificial intelligence tool development, data infrastructure support, and data visualization, all with an eye to health equity.
  • Amanda Bunting developed a new measurement tool to explicitly measure polysubstance use and is adapting trauma interventions to understand the needs of people who take opioids and stimulants.
  • Ryan Logan uses cutting-edge gene-editing tools to identify links between sleep, circadian rhythms, and opioid use disorder.
  • William Renthal is studying how chronic pain develops in nerve cells, including how they change identity after injury.
  • Chelsea Shover is using science to improve health for people with stigmatized conditions and guided state policy to deliver 100,000 doses of naloxone to people experiencing homelessness.

Research Excellence

HEAL’s scientific solutions will come from creative, rigorous, impactful research questions. This year’s winners of the Research Excellence award highlight the breadth of HEAL science that is building a solid foundation for improved health outcomes. This year’s winners of the HEAL Director’s Research Excellence Award are listed below.

  • Gail D’Onofrio’s research is transforming how substance use disorders are treated in emergency medicine. She pressed on with “unflagging optimism” during the COVID-19 pandemic to inspire HEAL research teams and deliver hope and compassion to patients she sees every day.
  • Lisa Saldana is committed to putting research to work, using creative strategies to overcome hurdles, such as establishing a community-based outpatient clinic serving Medicaid-covered parents to conduct prevention research in the child welfare system.
  • Gregory Scherrer's research on nerve circuits shared by pain and opioid pathways aims to uncover targets for novel non-addictive pain treatments along with ways to make opioids safer to use by reducing dangerous side effects.

Research that cuts across scientific fields is necessary to understand complex health conditions like pain and addiction, toward coming up with prevention and treatment strategies that address the needs of the whole person. This year’s winners of the HEAL Director’s Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Community Partnership Awards are listed below.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

  • Sean Murphy teams with criminal-legal partners, public health colleagues, implementation scientists, treatment providers, and others to develop a customizable, publicly available budget impact tool that is designed to assist jail and prison decision-makers to offer treatment in justice settings.
  • Daniel Rotroff uses a creative and inclusive approach to lead a large team using state-of-the-art machine learning to develop efficient and effective models to identify patients at risk of moderate to severe chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathic pain.
  • Linda Sprague Martinez incorporates health equity into research plans and conduct, using case-based role playing and reflective sessions to create opportunities for research teams to grapple with power dynamics that can impede progress.

Community Partnership

  • Kamilla Venner, a member of the Ahtna Athabascan Tribe, has been conducting impactful community-based participatory research with Southwest Tribes for more than 20 years. Appreciating a holistic view of addiction and recovery has enriched both her research and personal life.
  • Sharon Walsh combined a diverse group of faculty from seven colleges at the University of Kentucky, with experts in health economics and communications to establish a team to meet the ambitious goals of the HEALing Communities Study.
  • J. Deanna Wilson is known for intentionally making space for community members in her research. She partnered with people with lived experience to identify an urgent need for peer-based integration of harm reduction into healthcare settings.


Mentoring is essential to success in science, as well as for successful and sustainable growth of research initiatives like HEAL. A good mentor is a good communicator and empathizer, providing actionable advice on career development, guiding scientific problem-solving, and more. This year’s winners of the HEAL Director’s Mentoring Award are listed below.

  • Erin Bonar's mentees, including first-generation students, women, and people who are racial and ethnic minorities, report that her guidance “goes beyond the standard expectations” of a mentor focused on tangible research goals.
  • Jessica Merlin “embraces cultural humility,” being open about her privileges and sensitive to how race, gender, and personal history affect academic careers. She actively creates spaces to share and debrief implicit biases and uncomfortable situations.
  • Thaddeus Tarpey has nurtured the next generation of pain researchers, focusing on precision medicine and analysis of data from multi-component treatments.
  • Katie Witkiewitz, who lives with chronic pain and is a first-generation college student, experienced significant socioeconomic and rural disadvantage growing up. Her background shapes her ongoing commitment to mentoring, justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, toward reducing human suffering from pain and addiction.

HEAL was launched with the vision that science can provide solutions to public health challenges like the pain, opioid, and overdose crisis. I am proud to see the progress that our team has made untangling complicated challenges driving pain and substance use disorders. Our accomplishments reflect the many minds, approaches, and research questions that address this urgent need. I am deeply grateful to this year’s award winners – and to our whole community for pressing on to help communities across America.

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