Obituary: Kim Sutton-Tyrrell / Pitt professor was renowned medical researcher

Died Dec. 3, 2012

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She was a world-renowned researcher who developed groundbreaking techniques in detecting early risk of stroke. She made jewelry to raise money for student scholarships and her church's food bank. She gardened, mentored and trained students, raised two children and, once upon a time, taught disco dancing.

To say that Kim Sutton-Tyrrell, a cardiovascular health research pioneer who died of cancer Monday at 54, made the most of her life bettering the lives of others would not be an understatement. As professor and vice chair for academics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health's Department of Epidemiology, Ms. Sutton-Tyrrell ran national multi-center studies that collected the data needed to help older adults and women determine their risk of cardiovascular disease, and was one of the first epidemiologists to apply carotid artery ultrasound imaging and vascular function techniques to clinical trials and population studies.

But she also took an intense interest in the welfare of her students, in their training, their well-being and their career opportunities.

"Kim liked to grow things, whether they were students, children, flowers or ideas," said her husband, Mark Tyrrell, of Upper St. Clair.

Indeed, when one of her students, Evelyn Wei, was killed in a car accident a decade ago, Ms. Sutton-Tyrrell started a fund for scholarships in Ms. Wei's name, contributing her own money from revenues from her jewelry business.

"When Kim got sick, one of her great concerns to me was she wanted to make sure to me that was continued after she was gone. Every time I saw her she was just about that." said Anne Newman, chair of Pitt Public Health's Department of Epidemiology.

Ms. Sutton-Tyrrell came to the field of cardiovascular research somewhat circuitously, beginning her career as an intensive care nurse at UPMC Montefiore. There, her intellectual gifts quickly became evident to her superiors.

"We got her interested in working in the vascular lab, and she just blossomed," said Lewis Kuller, emeritus professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health and Ms. Tyrrell's longtime research collaborator. "Kim had very sophisticated quantitative skills. In fact she was a rarity -- someone who could combine statistical and epidemiological methods with expertise in clinical laboratory approaches," with the ability not just to use methodology to measure and collect data but interpret it. Up until her illness, he said, she was actively involved in improving those measurement techniques to assess the risk of stroke and heart attacks.

Her big breakthrough came while working in Montefiore's vascular laboratory in the 1990s, when she made an important discovery. Up until that time, high blood pressure in older adults was generally considered "a normal phenomenon of the aging process, that you simply needed the extra blood to get to into your brain," Dr. Kuller said. Ms. Sutton-Tyrrell found, through the use of ultrasound, that the stiffening of carotid arteries in the neck was in fact due to aging. But high blood pressure in older adults usually indicated something completely different -- vascular disease, a key stroke risk factor -- and that drug therapy could reduce that risk.

Today, the measurement techniques she developed are in use all over the world.

"Her greatest accomplishment was the ability to take methodology used in clinical medicine and apply it to study the causes of cardiovascular disease, with an emphasis how this might enhance prevention," Dr. Kuller said.

While she possessed all the qualities of a great scientist -- meticulously well organized yet creative, she also "expressed great joy in the process of scientific discovery," said Dr. Newman, Pitt's epidemiology chair.

And she shared that joy, especially, with the young people she taught.

"She paid attention to the whole person," Dr. Newman said. "She really cared about her students on a personal level, believing that it was her responsibility to make a difference by training the next generation of scientists."

After presenting at national meetings, however, Ms. Sutton-Tyrrell, a former disco dancing teacher, knew how to let off steam.

"I remember one of the meetings we went to regularly, the American Heart Association's Council on Epidemiology, and after that meeting, at dinner, she would get out there on the dance floor and really have a good time," Dr. Newman said.

It was all about human connection, added her husband.

"That's where she got her greatest joy," he said, "having her children become great people, and her students becoming scientists in their own right."

Besides her husband, Ms. Sutton-Tyrrell is survived by her son, Andy, a student at Temple University, and her daughter, Katie, of Upper St. Clair.

A memorial service for Ms. Sutton-Tyrrell will be held at the Mount Lebanon United Methodist Church, 3319 West Liberty Ave., at 1 p.m. Monday. The service is open to all.

In her memory, the Kim Sutton-Tyrrell fund has been established at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Donations can be mailed to the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health c/o Jill Ruempler, A660 Crabtree Hall, 130 DeSoto St., Pittsburgh, PA 15261.

Pitt Public Health is planning a memorial symposium for early next year.

obituaries

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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