On August 10, 2021, the GI Research Foundation Associates Board announced its award of $37,575 to fund four innovative research projects at the University of Chicago Medicine Digestive Diseases Center (DDC). The 2021 Associates Board Grants cohort includes third-year pediatric Fellow Mora Puertolas, BA, MBBS; second-year pediatric Fellow Julia Kleinhenz, MD; third-year gastroenterology Fellow Ariel Halper Stromberg, MD, PhD; and post-doctoral scholar Madeleine Durkee, PhD. The projects funded this year will investigate microbiome makeup and disease biomarkers to help better diagnose, more effectively treat, and even prevent inflammatory bowel disease (IBD); pediatric non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) related to obesity; and primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a progressive type of bile duct scarring related to IBD.

On selecting the recipients, Associates Board President Brad Peterson explained, “This year, we selected four research projects that will help improve the quality of life for patients with chronic inflammatory conditions and obesity, but, more than just funding projects, we are directly investing in the careers of up-and-coming leaders in the GI field. We are thrilled about our 2021 grant recipients and excited to see the outcomes of their research.”

The funding is a life raft to junior investigators and physician-scientists who saw non-COVID-19 medical research shrink during the pandemic.  In fact, in a year where fundraising has been extremely difficult for most nonprofits, the GI Research Foundation Associates Board raised and awarded record levels of funding. “The added stress and uncertainty experienced by those with chronic GI conditions during the pandemic underscores the need by patients to see improved treatments and some day, cures for their conditions. It’s exciting that we were able to provide an additional $5,000 in funding this year, and we hope to keep that trend going and continue to move the GI research field forward,” explained Jordan Hirsch, Associates Board President-Elect.

The Associates Board opens their annual Request for Proposal (RFP) at the UChicago Medicine DDC each spring and holds events year-round to raise funds for cutting-edge research. Through August 16th, the Associates Board is raising funds through a VIP Cubs Experience raffle.

Are you interested in attending or volunteering at an Associates Board event? Reach out to us at info@girf.org.

Read more about the 2021 GI Research Foundation grant-funded projects below:

  • Data mining of quantitative spatial features of immune cells in primary sclerosing cholangitis associated inflammatory bowel disease
    • Award amount $10,000
    • Stated Aims:
      1. Curate a dataset of highly-multiplexed microscopy images of colon biopsies from a pilot dataset of PSC patients.
      2. Apply novel computer vision methods to segment and classify immune cells in a pilot dataset of highly-multiplexed immunofluorescence images of colon biopsies from PSC patients.

Grant Recipient:

Madeleine S. Durkee, Ph.D

Postdoctoral Scholar

The University of Chicago


  • Examining bile acids and microbiota from the bile ducts of primary sclerosing cholangitis – inflammatory bowel disease patients
    • Award amount: $10,000
    • Stated Aims:
      1. Develop and optimize a sample collection and processing pipeline for obtaining bile duct samples from patients undergoing ERCP
      2. Compare microbial populations and bile acid composition from PSC-IBD patients, IBD only patients, and healthy controls to identify differences that could underscore disease pathogenesis and yield insights to develop new therapeutic targets.

Grant Recipient:

Ariel Halper Stromberg, MD, PhD

Gastroenterology Fellow

University of Chicago


  • Microbiome Changes in Pediatric Obese Patients on Glucagon-like Peptide-1
    • Award amount $7,575
    • Stated Aims:
      1. To determine if the microbiome composition of pediatric obese patients with clinically diagnosed non-alcoholic fatty liver disease gets altered with the use of weight loss medications, specifically glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor (GLP-1) agonists.
      2. To determine if the microbiome composition of pediatric obese patients with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes mellitus gets altered with GLP-1 agonists.

To determine if changes in the microbiome are associated with clinical outcomes (i.e. weight loss, improvement of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and/or glycemic control).

Grant Recipient:

Julia Kleinhenz, MD

Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition Fellow

University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital


  • Incidence of Colitis in IL10 KO Offspring Based on Maternal Dietary Fat Content
    • Award amount: $10,000
    • Stated Aims:
      1. To build on the association between a genetic defect in IL-10 (interleukin 10, a member of the immune system that is known to keep the immune system in check) and early onset IBD, and the association between a diet high in fat and IBD.
      2. To establish whether the pups of mothers who are fed a high fat diet while they are pregnant and nursing their pups have a higher incidence of inflammation in the large intestine.
      3. To elucidate if switching the pups to a low fat diet after they are weaned from their mothers diminishes the rate of colonic inflammation they experience by correcting some of their dysbiosis, the term used to describe microbial imbalance in the gut.

Grant Recipient:

Mora Puertolas, BA, MBBS

Pediatric Gastroenterology Fellow PGY6

University of Chicago

* Total grant award amount may vary depending on budget adjustments and it is contingent upon research progress and availability of GIRF research funds.