Donata Vercelli, MD, has been appointed as a Regents Professor, a title awarded to full professors who have garnered the most distinguished accomplishments in research, teaching, scholarship or creative work. Dr. Vercelli, professor of cellular and molecular medicine, associate director of the University of Arizona Health Sciences Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center, and a member of the BIO5 Institute, came to the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson in 1999.
“I am delighted to join the Arizona Board of Regents in recognizing Dr. Vercelli’s extraordinary research in the interaction of genetic and environmental factors in the development of asthma and allergic diseases,” said Michael D. Dake, MD, senior vice president for Health Sciences. “Her investigations, which integrate basic and molecular epidemiologic approaches, have had a profound impact on the public’s understanding of the development of asthma and allergic diseases.”
A landmark study Dr. Vercelli co-authored, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that children growing up on Amish farms who were exposed to higher levels of microbial products were better protected from asthma than children with similar genetic backgrounds who were growing up on Hutterite farms with less microbial exposure.
“Becoming a Regents Professor is a truly great honor because so many stars need to be aligned – you need to have the enthusiastic support your colleagues, willing to identify and verbalize that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that is supposed to set Regents Professors apart within a faculty with many excellent members; then you need the support of several international and national authorities in your field; and finally, all this needs to convince a demanding, multidisciplinary group of professors who send their recommendations to our president,” said Dr. Vercelli. “How can you not feel humbled and ask yourself, ‘Why me?’”
Her research has led to several major prizes, grant funding totaling more than $40 million and national and international accolades. In 2010, she was elected to the Association of American Physicians. In 2018, she was elected secretary general of the Collegium Internationale Allergologicum – an international group that examines the scientific and clinical problems in allergy and related branches of medicine and immunology. In eight years she will become president of the Collegium.
“I believe what is special about UArizona Health Sciences is that while pursuing our scientific dream – to understand how the environment and microbes can protect from asthma and allergies – we took the road less traveled and dared do experiments no one thought could work,” said Dr. Vercelli. “But they did work, and very, very well. I am convinced that being at UArizona Health Sciences has nurtured and strengthened my ability to think boldly and innovatively – because at its best, this is what UArizona Health Sciences is about.”
Dr. Vercelli received her medical degree from the University of Florence in 1978 and trained in immunology at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, where she was assistant professor of pediatrics from 1991 to 1994. She followed that appointment at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, where she spent four years as director of the Molecular Immunoregulation Unit.
The title of Regents Professor is reserved for full professors whose exceptional achievements merit national and international distinction. Regents Professor appointments are limited to no more than 3% of the total number of the university's tenured and tenure-track faculty members.