At the Department of Biochemistry’s annual holiday party, four graduate students, four faculty, and two staff members were recognized for their extraordinary contributions and dedication to research, teaching, and to the department.

Mara Kushelman, second-year graduate student, received the Department of Biochemistry Teaching Award for outstanding teaching. Kushelman serves as the graduate teaching assistant for Concepts of Biochemistry, a large, lecture-based undergraduate course and dedicates several hours towards fostering student success. She takes notes and shares her annotated files with the entire class, holds hourly office hours twice a week, hosts two-hour long review sessions prior to all exams, offers assignment editing services, and acts as a mentor for students. Her nominators praised her for going above and beyond and either meeting or exceeding student expectations.

Darcy Davison, fifth-year graduate student, was awarded the Department of Biochemistry Research Award for outstanding research. Her nominators praised her ability to consistently meet and exceed all of her research goals with multiple papers in progress. Nominators also selected Davidson because she advocates the importance and relevance of computational work for application in biochemical and biophysical disciplines. Davidson’s research seeks to understand the biophysics of intrinsically disordered proteins to further develop treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s.

The Bruce M. Anderson Award was established in 1982 to honor the service of Bruce Anderson, department head of biochemistry from 1970-1982 and admired professor who passed in 2017. Noah Lyons, second-year graduate student, was selected as the recipient of this award, which is given to a second-year student who provided exemplary service and performed community building efforts in their first year. His nominators noted that he was an excellent teaching assistant in the undergraduate biochemistry lab. Additionally, they shared that Lyons was a great departmental citizen and was always the first person to volunteer for any number of departmental projects and tasks.

The Kendall W. King Memorial Scholarship is awarded to the most outstanding advanced graduate student who has passed preliminary examination and has made substantial progress on their dissertation research. The scholarship was created in 1980 in recognition of Kendall King, alumnus class of 1949, professor, and department head in 1966-1968. Catherine Freed, fifth-year graduate student, was the recipient of this scholarship, which recognizes potential for scholarly achievement in teaching and research and dedication to humanitarian service. Her dissertation research focuses on altering a specific group of molecules called inositol pyrophosphates (PP-InsPs) to develop plants that can be used to reclaim excess nutrients from polluted environments (specifically, Phosphorus). Freed’s research is crucial to bolstering public awareness of the Phosphorus crisis, as it is already impacting our global food security. She’s recently received a proof of concept award from Virginia Tech for commercializing technology associated with her dissertation project. 

Each year, the Department of Biochemistry celebrates and recognizes the accomplishments of its faculty in the core area of teaching and research. Two outstanding teaching awards were given to Daniel Slade, associate professor, and Justin Lemkul, assistant professor.

Lemkul’s nominators raved about his successful creation of a new biophysics course, noting that he built the course from scratch. This new course will further promote interdisciplinary research projects in the biochemistry and biophysics disciplines.

Slade was put up for this award because of his ability to teach a challenging course during the pandemic and the impact he’s made on students. In a recent video by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, featured biochemistry students said that they were thankful for Slade because he brought “energy into the classroom” and was able “to convey complex material in a way that’s enjoyable” and “grab your attention, no matter how you were feeling that day.”

Faculty recipients of the outstanding research awards were Brandon Jutras, assistant professor, and Kylie Allen, assistant professor.

Jutras was recognized for making new discoveries in the area of the bacteria cell wall biosynthesis. Researchers in the Jutras Lab discovered that the bacterium that causes Lyme disease has a highly unusual modification in its protective molecular bag – its peptidoglycan, which is common to all bacteria. The change in this bacterium is unprecedented and is an unusual sugar modification that is not known to occur in any organism.

For unraveling the role of anaerobes in climate change and other biological processes, Allen was also recognized. In 2021, Allen discovered the first instance of living organisms producing elemental carbon in an interdisciplinary, collaborative project with researchers at Virginia Tech, the University of Bremen, and the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology. Their research revealed that two kinds of microorganisms - methanogens and anaerobic methanotrophs – are able to produce a form of elemental carbon known as amorphous carbon. The discovery defies all previous expectations of what microorganisms can do, and sheds scientific light on some very interesting questions.

The department unveiled a new award, the Ever-Present Award, which recognized Sheila Early, biochemistry’s graduate coordinator. Early’s daily presence in the main office, along with her willingness to fill in for others and take on new duties, has allowed the department to provide excellent services for faculty, staff, students, and the public.

Finally, Patricia “Trish” Linkous, biochemistry’s fiscal technician, was awarded the Most Impact in the Department award. Linkous has served the department for almost fifteen years. She’s single-handedly oversaw all financial actions and kept critical operations going at a critical time in the department. Her nominators wrote that she was the key link in ensuring labs were able to perform the work they do by securing lab supplies and reagents. They also added that her knowledge of the financial systems within the department and at Virginia Tech is top notch and allows the department to host many fun events and continue to conduct research.

Written by Cameron Warren