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U. of Utah Rosenblatt prize goes to husband-wife medical professors

Published May 4, 2012 12:47 pm

U. faculty honor • Neuro-ophthamologist, obstetrician are leaders in clinical research.
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Two University of Utah School of Medicine professors are sharing this year's Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence.

At commencement exercises Friday, President David Pershing awarded the U.'s highest faculty honor to Kathleen B. Digre, professor of neurology and ophthalmology, and Michael W. Varner, professor of obstetrics and gynecology. This is the first time the prize, which comes with a $40,000 gift, has been given to two people in the prize's 30-year history.

And these two happened to be married to each other.

"This year we found it impossible to choose one over the other. Kathleen and Michael are both extraordinarily gifted teachers, dedicated and proficient administrators, and are internationally regarded as two of the foremost researchers and leaders in their fields," Pershing said. "The university community is enhanced by their work, and it a distinct pleasure to bestow this honor on them."

Also honored at Friday's commencement were two U. senior vice presidents, Lorris Betz and Jerilyn McIntyre, recipients of honorary doctorates. Both were two-time interim U. presidents heading off into retirement. McIntyre recently retired as president of Central Washington University.

Honorary doctorates were also given to philanthropist Beverley Taylor Sorenson; Wat Misaka, who played on Utah's 1947 championship basketball team and was the first Asian-American to play professional basketball; and H. David Burton, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' central business and finance manager.

Varner is an internationally recognized clinical researcher in maternal fetal medicine. He has coordinated millions of dollars in federally sponsored research through major hospitals and local practices along the Wasatch Front. Varner also established a service mission to Tibet, bringing education and improved health care.

"His work and efforts will impact the health and well-being of women and children over the next century throughout the world," said Patrick Duff, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Florida, in a U. news release.

Digre is a world-renowned expert in neuro-ophthalmology, a medical subspecialty focusing on brain problems that affect vision. Through her efforts, the U. is one of only a few institutions in the world with certified fellowship-training programs in this field.

She is the first woman to serve as president of the North American Neuro-ophthalmology Society, she was an American Neurological Association council member and sits on the board of directors for the American Headache Society.

"With creativity, persistence and tireless effort, she made possible the establishment of a virtual library for neuro-ophthalmology — the Neuro-Ophthalmology Virtual Education Library commonly known as NOVEL — that is now being used by literally thousands of teachers and students around the globe. Without her initiative and engagement this project would never have been accomplished," said Klara Landau, who chairs the department of ophthalmology at the University Hospital Zurich.

bmaffly@sltrib.com