Dr. Hwang updates busy research division

Last June, Dr. Soonjo Hwang was named as the interim research director of the Department of Psychiatry. In the past year, Dr. Hwang has been able to build a significant level of research activities in the department while still looking toward the future.

When Dr. Hwang, an assistant professor, and child and adolescent psychiatrist, accepted the position he had some significant goals.

“My short term goal is to expand collaboration with the other departments, institutions, and national agencies of research (such as NIH), and also promote and motivate current colleagues and attendings as well as trainees and other personnel in the department for doing more research and studies,” Dr. Hwang said last April.

Soonjo Hwang, M.D.

In the subsequent year, several faculty members have worked with Dr. Hwang on research projects. Dr. Steven Wengel and Dr. Jonathon Sikorski have worked with Dr. Hwang on collecting data on occupational wellness and resiliency. Dr. Hwang has also worked with Dr. Lauren Edwards on collecting data on her anxiety disorder clinic, and Dr. Stephen Salzbrenner on a software program to simplify the prior authorization process.

“There are a lot of people building up their research core, and that’s very exciting,” Dr. Hwang said.

As more and more colleagues have shown interested in research, the division has needed to grow. Along with promoting Brigette Vaughan to the lead research coordinator, the Department of Psychiatry has hired two research assistants, Arica Lerdahl and Fred Garvey – and got approval to hire a post-doc to help research conduction including collecting and publishing data and findings.

“We have really grown as a department, but we are still looking for more researchers working for the department,” Dr. Hwang said. “We need to hire a serious researcher for the adult division as a short term to intermediate-term goal. This may take time. It is not always easy to find good, promising researchers.”We have made significant progress in the clinical research projects. Oxytocin project has recruited and completed about 45 children and adolescents in the clinical trial. We plan to complete the recruitment by next year, and will start data analysis soon. This will provide a very significant advances in the clinical trial and understanding of pediatric psychopathologies, especially irritability, aggressive behavior, and empathetic failure.

Dr. Hwang said UNMC has been recruited as a site of very important NICHD-funded national study of children and adolescents who take antipsychotic medications. This natural follow-up study will provide important clinical information on the safety and other pertaining medical issues of children and adolescents on antipsychotic medications for various reasons. The recruitment will start in early 2020. Also, the department plans to launch two major projects in collaboration with Boys Town, for children and adolescents who are treated by Sertraline for mood and anxiety disorders, and children and adolescents with a history of trauma exposure.

Dr. Hwang said his team has made a strong presence in multiple national conferences of science and psychiatry, including Congress on Pediatric Irritability and Dysregulation, Society of Biological Psychiatry, Society of the Scientific Study of Psychopathy, and American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. Many of our trainees and employees (Garvey, Lerdahl and medical students) made their presentations with welcomed and warm responses.

Dr. Hwang and his team have published a few important results in peer-reviewed highly esteemed journals, including Neuroimage: Clinical and Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. Many other manuscripts are either under revision or review. Additionally, Dr. Hwang has published numerous papers on his previous and current research projects, including the protocol of “Investigating the impacts of Oxytocin on irritability in children and adolescents with disruptive behavior and mood disorders.” In May, he will present his findings at the national conferences, including the Society of Scientific Study of Psychopathy Conference in Nevada, and the Society of Biological Psychiatry Conference in Illinois.

Along with his work, Dr. Hwang said Vaughan will conclude her work in Columbus and will be fully working at UNMC for her clinical and research responsibilities.

Since arriving at UNMC in 2015, Dr. Hwang has collaborated with Boys Town in Omaha on his research and used an MRI machine at Boys Town. In January, the Department of Neurological Sciences at UNMC purchased a brand-new, research-dedicated MRI machine. The new device allows Dr. Hwang to do brain scanning at UNMC in addition to the on-going project at Boys Town. Dr. Hwang and his staff have worked with the Department of Neurological Sciences for this, and Dr. Hwang suggests other psychiatry researchers should consider using this great opportunity as well.

“If anyone wants to do research on neuroimaging we can now provide support for that since we now have a research-dedicated MRI machine, and we should have some seed money to collect preliminary data as well,” he said.

Dr. Hwang said he’s willing to give a tour and a consultation on using the new machine.

“There’s a lot of great things going on right now in the research department,” Dr. Hwang said.

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