Dr. Wael El-Rifai Honored with Second Endowed Chair from Esteemed Alumnus

From his humble start as a University of Miami student to the pinnacle of his public relations career, John K. Schulte was a steadfast supporter of his alma mater. After witnessing the medical expertise and compassionate care delivered to dear friends and family during their illnesses, Schulte and his wife, Judy, focused their philanthropic support on Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Department of Otolaryngology at the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.

While the couple gave generously during their lifetime, they also arranged to support research and education after their passing. Judy passed away in 2016 and John in 2018.

A group of doctors posing for a photo.
From left: Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H.; Stephen D. Nimer, M.D.; Wael El-Rifai, M.D., Ph.D.; Henri R. Ford, M.D., M.H.A.; Omaida C. Velazquez, M.D.; and University of Miami President Julio Frenk, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.

Their legacy will now live on in perpetuity through their gift to Sylvester, which includes the John and Judy Schulte Senior Endowed Chair in Cancer Research. The chair was recently presented to Wael El-Rifai, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of basic science and co-leader of the Tumor Biology Program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and professor and associate vice chair of the DeWitt Daughtry Family Department of Surgery.

The Schultes’ endowment will allow Dr. El-Rifai, who is also co-leader of the developing fourth Research Program for Translational and Clinical Oncology, to expand his research, which aims to identify and develop novel therapeutic strategies for gastroesophageal cancers.

“It is hard to measure the immense impact the Schultes’ gift will have on the future of Sylvester and our scientists and health care professionals who dedicate their lives to better understand and fight cancer,” said Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., director of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “This endowed chair reflects a steadfast belief in the potential and talent of Dr. Wael El-Rifai.”

Internationally Renowned Cancer Researcher

Dr. Nimer, the Oscar de la Renta Endowed Chair in Cancer Research, executive dean for research; professor of medicine, biochemistry, and molecular biology at the Miller School; and professor of chemical, environmental, and materials engineering at the University of Miami, credited El-Rifai as an internationally renowned cancer researcher who has made important discoveries in fundamental and translational oncogenomic assessments of upper gastrointestinal carcinomas, primarily stomach and esophageal cancer.

Family photo with one man seated
Dr. El-Rifai and family

Dr. El-Rifai’s numerous accomplishments were touted throughout the endowed chair presentation, which took place at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute Berrocal Auditorium on June 8 and was attended both virtually and in person by family, friends, colleagues, and University dignitaries. The celebration also recognized the enormous generosity of the Schultes.

“It is extraordinary philanthropic leaders like John and Judy Schulte whose dedication has led us to the highest echelons of excellence in our pursuit of a winning strategy against cancer, and that pursuit can only be fueled by visionary research like that of Dr. El-Rifai,” said University of Miami President Julio Frenk.

‘The Highest Academic Honor’

Calling an endowed chair the highest academic honor that a university can bestow on a faculty member, Henri R. Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean and chief academic officer of the Miller School, spoke of the enormous potential it provides.

“Endowed chairs allow scientists like Dr. Wael El-Rifai to continue their research so they can discover new treatments for the world’s most vexing diseases,” Dean Ford said.

Dr. El-Rifai has lofty plans for the endowment. “I intend to use the Schultes’ investment to explore new territories and ideas in our research to investigate how cancer cells interact with the tumor microenvironment and immune response for gastroesophageal cancers,” he said.

“I’m blessed and honored to be a part of Sylvester, to be working with and learning from so many visionary leaders in cancer research,” added Dr. El-Rifai, who is also professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Miller School.

Dedication to Finding Treatments

Omaida C. Velazquez, M.D., professor and chair of the DeWitt Daughtry Family Department of Surgery, had the privilege of introducing Dr. El-Rifai and presenting him with a medallion recognizing him as the inaugural recipient of the John and Judy Schulte Senior Endowed Chair in Cancer Research.

“We are lucky to have his expertise at the Miller School, providing unique training experiences in diverse areas of cancer research that include molecular mechanisms of tumorigenesis, drug resistance, and targeted therapy,” said Velazquez, who is also the David Kimmelman Endowed Chair in Vascular and Endovascular Surgery at the Miller School and surgeon-in-chief at UHealth – University of Miami Health System/Jackson Health System. “This chair is a generous and well-deserved commitment to Dr. El-Rifai’s dedication to finding the treatments that will give our patients the most hope.”

Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director for population sciences and cancer disparity at Sylvester and vice provost for research and scholarship at the University, who received the first John K. and Judy H. Schulte Senior Endowed Chair in Cancer Research earlier this year, said, “This endowed chair is a representation for what the Schultes’ believed that Sylvester would become here in South Florida — a beacon of hope for patients.”

Dr. W. Jarrard “Jerry’’ Goodwin, emeritus professor of otolaryngology at the Miller School, former director of Sylvester, and longtime friend of the Schultes, said the couple would have been proud to see their assets go to support Sylvester research and Dr. El-Rifai.

“John and Judy loved the Miller School of Medicine, and they especially loved Sylvester. They wanted all of Miami — all of South Florida really — to know about Sylvester. They would be thrilled to see where it is today,” Goodwin said.

Tags: cancer research, Dean Henri Ford, DeWitt Daughtry Family Department of Surgery, Dr. Stephen Nimer, Dr. Wael El-Rifai, John and Judy Schulte Senior Endowed Chair in Cancer Research, President Julio Frenk, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center