First Presidential Distinguished Chair Named in Honor of Chancellor Washington, Awarded to Dzirasa

School of Medicine Dean Mary E. Klotman, MD, announced this week that Duke’s first Presidential Distinguished Chair will be named in honor of outgoing Chancellor for Health Affairs A. Eugene Washington, MD, and his wife, Marie. 

The anonymous donor who established the inaugural Presidential Distinguished Chair in early 2021 said the gift was intended to support superb science and to honor the Washingtons. The professorship will be known as A. Eugene and Marie Washington Presidential Distinguished Chair. 

Presidential Distinguished Chairs are a new class of endowed professorships, created to maximize the university’s ability to recruit and retain exceptional faculty in a wide range of disciplines, including those aligned with the Duke Science and Technology (DST) initiative. Presidential Distinguished Chairs are intended to support faculty who will make transformative discoveries, push the boundaries of science and improve human health, and support intellectual vision and innovative energy to inspire educational collaboration across the Duke community. 

During Washington’s eight-year tenure as chancellor, he transformed and elevated the academic and research enterprise across Duke Health, launching a number of major initiatives and sustaining and expanding Duke’s role as an internationally renowned biomedical research institution.  

“Marie and I are deeply honored and excited for what this endowed chair will mean for Duke and for our community of exceptional faculty, providers, students and staff,” said Washington, who will step down as chancellor on June 30. “Thanks to the vision and philanthropy of our supporters, Duke is even better equipped to empower visionary scientists whose discoveries advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge in the service of improving human health. The initial recipient of this chair certainly fits that description.” 

Marie Washington and Eugene Washington with Kafui Dzirasa
Marie and Dr. A. Eugene Washington with Dr. Kafui Dzirasa

In accordance with the donor’s wishes that the professorship be awarded to a scholar of exceptional eminence in neuroscience or another field in science and technology in the School of Medicine, the A. Eugene and Marie Washington Presidential Distinguished Chair will be awarded to Kafui Dzirasa, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, professor of neurobiology, and assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke. 

Dzirasa, who received his MD and PhD and completed his residency at Duke before joining the faculty in 2009, is a pioneering researcher whose expertise in neuroscience, psychiatry, and engineering is transforming the understanding of the basic biological mechanisms of mental illness. He is also a national leader who has distinguished himself as an advocate for diversity and inclusion in science. 

Dzirasa said being the recipient of a chair named for Chancellor Washington was a special honor. 

“I have stood on the shoulders of giants who advocated that in order to achieve the best versions of science and medicine, historical barriers that prevent talent from entering the workforce must be torn down,” said Dzirasa, who previously held the K. Ranga Rama Krishnan Associate Professorship. “These pioneers also championed the notion that the true potential of biomedical innovations can only be realized if their benefits are shared equally by all members of our society.  

"My lab now works to create biomedical innovations that reduce the suffering caused by mental illnesses, while demonstrating what is possible for science when people of all experiences and backgrounds come together to pursue a cause that is greater than themselves. I can imagine no greater honor than to be recognized alongside one of the giants that paved this path that I’ve worked so diligently to follow.” 

Dzirasa is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a member of professional organizations including the National Academy of Medicine, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.  

Among his many honors are the International Mental Health Research Organization Rising Star Award, the Sydney Baer Prize for Schizophrenia Research, and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Last October he was named a recipient of the NIH’s prestigious Pioneer Award.  

“Kaf is a quintessential physician-scientist,” Klotman said. “He combines his research, medical training, and community experience to improve outcomes for diverse communities suffering from neurological and psychiatric illness. The inaugural A. Eugene and Marie Washington Presidential Distinguished Chair could not go to a more deserving recipient.”