OTO Looks Back on 2023

Man with eyes closed in front of a whooshing subway

As we approach the end of 2023, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the many accomplishments over the past year in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh. I am extremely proud of our faculty, fellows, residents, and staff for their commitment to clinical excellence and to the academic mission of our Department. Below are some of the highlights for 2023:

Recruitment: Over the last year, we have recruited 10 outstanding faculty to join the Department, including eight surgeons and two PhD researchers. Each of these recruits has added to the richness of our Department, enhancing our clinical programs and introducing new and exciting lines of investigation. In the fall of 2023, we welcomed Dr. Christina Yver to lead our Facial Nerve Center previously led by Dr. Barry Schaitkin. Prior to joining the faculty, Dr. Yver was a facial plastic surgery fellow with Dr. Tessa Hadlock at the Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, widely considered among the best facial nerve programs in the United States. She has already made significant contributions to facial plastic surgery education and clinical care. We also welcomed Dr. Thomas Kaffenberger, who completed his fellowship in sleep medicine and surgery at Thomas Jefferson University. Dr. Kaffenberger is our third sleep surgeon and will help further our research and educational programs in the Division of Sleep Surgery led by Dr. Ryan Soose. Dr. Garret Choby joined Dr. Carl Snyderman and Dr. Eric Wang as the third skull base surgeon and rhinologist in the Department. Dr. Choby has integrated seamlessly into our multidisciplinary UPMC Skull Base Center, considered one of the leading skull base programs in the world. Before joining the faculty, Dr. Choby was a skull base surgeon and Vice-Chair for Quality at the Mayo Clinic.

In 2023, we added three outstanding head and neck surgeons to our Department: Dr. Matthew Spector, Dr. Jessica Maxwell, and Dr. Kevin Contrera. Dr. Spector is our new Division Chief of Head and Neck Surgical Oncology and Microvascular Reconstructive Surgery. He is among the most experienced and innovative head and neck reconstructive surgeons in the United States, having previously co-directed the head and neck cancer program at the University of Michigan. Dr. Spector also leads our Advanced Head and Neck Surgery Fellowship and has already elevated our reconstructive surgery program to new heights. Dr. Maxwell is a highly experienced head and neck surgeon who will serve as the Otolaryngology Chief at the Pittsburgh VA as well as Associate Residency Program Director. She will focus her efforts on expanding otolaryngology-head and neck surgery care for veterans and building a head and neck cancer research program at the VA. Dr. Contrera joined us this fall after completing a two-year fellowship in head and neck surgical oncology and reconstruction at MD Anderson Cancer Center. In addition to complex surgery, Dr. Contrera will devote time to developing his career as a surgeon-scientist with mentorship from Dr. Ferris and others at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. In the coming months, we will announce our two new outstanding recruits in neurotology and laryngology. Stay tuned!

As we acknowledge our new recruits, I would also like to acknowledge the retirement of two pillars of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Barry Hirsch and Dr. Barry Schaitkin. Their contributions to our Department’s culture of clinical and academic excellence cannot be overstated. They will be missed!

Research: The University of Pittsburgh Department of Otolaryngology remains one of the leading clinical, basic, and translational research programs in the United States. In 2022, we ranked #2 in the nation in NIH funding among Otolaryngology Departments. This incredible success is built upon our Head and Neck Cancer SPORE program led by Dr. Robert Ferris, one of only five such programs in the United States. The legacy of excellence in head and neck cancer research continues as we recruit new investigators, including Dr. Angela Mazul, a head and neck cancer epidemiologist focused on addressing disparities in cancer care. Another pillar of our research success in the Department of Otolaryngology is the Pittsburgh Hearing Research Center (PHRC) led by Dr. Thanos Tzounopoulos. With over $4 million in annual funding from the NIH, NSF, DOD, and foundation grants, the PHRC is among the strongest hearing research programs in the country. In collaboration with the Department of Ophthalmology, we launched a new PhD certificate program in Hearing and Visual Sciences to provide dedicated training for PhD students across the University of Pittsburgh. The PHRC also welcomed its sixth principal investigator in 2023, Dr. Melissa McGovern, PhD.  Dr. McGovern was recently awarded the Neil Segil Emerging Scientist Award from the Hearing Health Foundation to establish a new mouse model to further investigate hair cell regeneration. 

The Pittsburgh Hearing Institute: Building upon the success of the PHRC, I am excited to announce a campaign to create a new clinical and translational research institute devoted to treating and finding cures for hearing loss and related disorders. This institute will be located on the sixth floor of the new UPMC Mercy Pavilion. It will include 20,000 square feet of research laboratories, clinical space for otology/neurotology, audiology, and vestibular, as well as a new state-of-the-art temporal bone laboratory. Anantha Shekhar, MD, PhD, Dean of the School of Medicine, and Senior Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, has committed $25 million towards this effort. The Eye & Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh will launch a fundraising campaign in 2024 to raise an additional $25 million. This $50 million investment will allow us to recruit exceptional translational hearing scientists to Pittsburgh, develop new clinical trial programs, and foster innovation through collaboration with our scientists and clinicians. This unprecedented support from the School of Medicine and the Eye and Ear Foundation will elevate our Department further as a world leader in otology-neurotology, audiology, and hearing sciences. 

Education: Our residency and fellowship programs continued to flourish over the last year, and we were thrilled to welcome an outstanding intern class from across the United States. Under the leadership of Dr. Noel Jabbour, our program has led the way in developing new approaches to effectively train surgeons and measure their progress throughout residency. The education team has also renewed its focus on resident wellness. We are proud to have two active resident CORE grant awardees within the Department this year (Dr. Tracy Cheng and Dr. Nicholas Fung), and celebrated chief resident Dr. Mark Fadel,who was named President-elect of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Section for Residents and Fellows. We are also incredibly proud of our graduating chief residents, who all matched at highly competitive fellowships in head and neck surgery, facial plastic surgery, sleep medicine and surgery, neurotology, and pediatric otolaryngology.  In 2023, we added Dr. Jessica Maxwell (Associate Residency Program Director) and Dr. Rachel Whelan (Director of Medical Student Education) to the educational leadership team. Our wonderful residency program coordinator, Ginna Matesic-Little, was promoted to Program Manager and now oversees the entire educational portfolio for the Department. 

Entrepreneurship and Innovation: Our Department continues to be a leader in surgical innovation and entrepreneurship. In coordination with the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute, we relaunched our CREATES program as an innovation center for surgeons and researchers throughout the school of medicine. Dr. Catherine Palmer was awarded The Eye & Ear Foundation Wiegand Entrepreneurial Research Award for developing a portable hearing assessment and amplification tool, LiDIA: Listening, iDentification, and Instant Amplification. Dr. Snyderman received a new SBIR grant to support the further growth of his start-up company Respair, which is focused on developing a novel endotracheal tube with a superior sealing mechanism that prevents injury and infection. Dr. Zevallos’ liquid biopsy company Droplet Biosciences recently announced its successful Series A funding and an exciting partnership with Labcorp. Dr. Ferris’ company, Novasenta, received renewed funding from UPMC Enterprises in 2023 to support the discovery of novel immunotherapy targets for cancer. Echogenesis, a new company founded by Drs. Christopher Cunningham and Tzounopoulos, was recently launched and will focus on developing novel gene therapy approaches to congenital hearing loss. Finally, Dr. Zevallos is preparing an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Symposium at the 2024 American Head and Neck Society Annual Meeting at COSM in Chicago. Pittsburgh surgical innovators will be well represented among the faculty. 

As the third Chair of Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh, I am driven every day to continue the tradition of excellence fostered by Dr. Eugene N. Myers and Dr. Jonas Johnson. I am grateful for their unwavering support as the Department embarks on this new era. I am also grateful to The Eye & Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh for their partnership as we elevate the University of Pittsburgh to new heights in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery. Finally, and most importantly, I am grateful to the faculty, residents, fellows, and alumni of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Otolaryngology who have entrusted me to steward this great Department. I could not be prouder to be a part of the Pittsburgh Otolaryngology tradition. Happy Holidays to all, and best wishes for a prosperous new year!

José P. Zevallos, MD MPH FACS
Eugene N. Myers, M.D. Professor and Chair
Department of Otolaryngology
The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine