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Meet Irina Buhimschi, new Associate Vice Chancellor for Research

A woman with glasses wearing a red collared shirt.

Dr. Irina Buhimschi, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Illinois Chicago, has always been a connector. In her research on the biological causes of pregnancy complications such as preterm birth and preeclampsia, she has pulled together knowledge from various disciplines to discover biomarkers and create diagnostic tests. As a mentor, Dr. Buhimschi helps junior faculty across campus build their careers in science, and as a collaborator, she conducts research in countries around the world.

Those qualities of building connections led Dr. Buhimschi to a new position as Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, directing the Office of Clinical and Human Subjects Research Compliance. In this campuswide role, she hopes to expand the capacity and maintain the integrity of research at UIC, supporting the types of innovative inquiry and collaborative approaches she’s used in her own work. Read a Q&A with Dr. Buhimschi below.

Tell us about your research interests.

My lab studies biomarkers and novel treatments for pregnancy disorders. We work in discovering new biomarkers, understanding why they're there, and then implementing them in current clinical care by designing and testing better therapeutics.

Our research starts with biological samples that we collect from patients which inform us on how to further subdivide pregnancy disorders. Today, cancer is not just one disease, but before we didn't think like that. Now we treat cancer with different drugs, depending on what subtype it is. But that doesn't exist in our area. If you have preeclampsia or preterm labor, there's a one-size-fits-all solution. So my research is trying to subdivide these conditions into entities with more homogenous causation so we can then think about treatments.

One of your most notable research outputs is the Congo Red Dot Test, which can diagnose preeclampsia from a urine sample using red dye. How did you develop this test?

When I was at Yale, I made a very basic science discovery by connecting different specialties. It is kind of my hobby to read things that apparently have no use in my career, and that has been both good and bad. I read a lot of research not only in my area, but in many different specialties. So one of the fascinating things I found was that I made the connection between preeclampsia, a disease of pregnancy, and Alzheimer's and other diseases related to protein misfolding.

I thought that we could use this dye, called Congo red, that binds to misfolded proteins to detect preeclampsia, and maybe understand more about the disease. So, I designed a simple test that mixes the urine of patients with preeclampsia with the dye, and that has led to three patents that have been licensed to companies that develop them for commercialization.

As part of that work, you have received funding from USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other entities for studying use of the test in countries such as Bangladesh, Mexico, Ethiopia and Uganda. What appeals to you about global research?

I think it's important to understand how medicine needs to be applied to where people live. We tend to think about developing innovations for places where many things are taken for granted. But if those are not available, you're left with an unusable product. So I have a passion for creating new things that could also be usable in low- and mid-income countries. I do work with different collaborators and we conduct studies in other countries that help us test these hypotheses and understand what those people need, because there's sometimes a disconnect between what we think they need and what they actually need and can use.

You are also a frequent mentor of junior faculty at UIC, please tell us about that work.

I dedicate a lot of time to mentoring fellows in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, in particular maternal fetal medicine fellows, and also through the BIRCWH junior faculty program. These junior faculty are both MDs and PhDs and frequently work on topics outside Ob./Gyn. So, my role is to guide them through their careers in terms of what is universal, such as biostatistics, how to approach research questions, how to navigate the submission process, how to respond to an NIH critique and so forth.

And that mentorship work also led to research?

Yes, we worked on a very interesting project with our trainees where we studied UIC faculty during COVID. We asked about their stress level, and what were their needs and their adaptations. That led to two publications with first authorship from BIRCWH scholars, and I'm very proud of those. It also connected me with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and with other colleges, because we studied how these colleges are different, and how the needs of the faculty in different colleges are different.

What do you enjoy about working at UIC?

I think the university is quite unique in the sense that it is small enough that people know each other, but big enough to have enough people. I like very much the opportunity to interact with a mix of scholars from different colleges at UIC. We have a breadth of faculty, from sociologists to public health to pharmacy, and they're always very open to collaboration. Bringing these people in with different perspectives, you really have a very novel way of looking at things.

Why did you choose to join the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research?

I felt that I have some knowledge and skills where I could actually help optimize the system, grow and streamline clinical research and, in general, connect people to bring in more research ideas. I think that UIC has these component parts, and I want us to bring them together, either through communication skills or through simplifying some of the things that are unnecessarily burdensome. I've been at several academic institutions, and I've seen many ways to do things, good and bad. I know some things that could be done better, but also where we are doing things better than others.

What do you see as the mission of the Office of Clinical and Human Subjects Research Compliance?

I think the major goal is to increase research output and make it easier for our faculty to conduct clinical research, but also to maintain compliance. I think oversight from the funding institutions is very important and it's important for us to be proactive, understanding the climate we're living in and where problems might arise before they actually happen.