Thanks to an alumni donor and long-time supporter of the biochemistry program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, two students were supported to pursue a master’s degree in life sciences through the creation of a new fellowship called the Ut Prosim Fellowship.

The Ut Prosim Fellowship was created with the goal of increasing diversity and inclusion at Virginia Tech and is inspired by the Virginia Tech motto “Ut Prosim” or “That I May Serve”, a motto that exemplifies not only the need to serve but a promise to serve. Those selected to receive the Ut Prosim Fellowship are students who have had a significant impact on their community, whether through outreach or mentorship, and demonstrate a strong work ethic and dedication to their research and academics.

The 2021-2022 inaugural recipient of the Ut Prosim Fellowship is Kevin Williams, advised by Daniel Slade, associate professor of biochemistry. Williams served as a biochemistry peer mentor for three years and got involved in undergraduate research during his second year. His first year in Zhao Feng Wang’s lab gave him a taste of what it meant to be a researcher and his experience in the Slade Lab throughout the rest of his undergraduate career and budding graduate career would mold him into the researcher he is today.

As an undergraduate student in the Slade lab, Williams had the opportunity to come up with his own research direction and experiments. He knew that he wanted to continue pursuing research, so, he applied and got admitted into the Department of Biochemistry’s Accelerated B.S./M.S. program, where a student can earn both a Bachelor of Biochemistry and Master of Life Sciences in five years.

Williams studied Fusobacterium nucleatum, a bacterium that lives in the human mouth that has been found to migrate throughout the body and cause a myriad of issues, including the potential to cause colon cancer to spread. His project was to research how this bacterium moves and survives travel through the body.

Williams graduated from the department this past semester and he’ll attend the University of California, Berkely to pursue a Ph.D. His research interests include human immunology, inflammation, and infectious diseases, but he’s excited about the opportunity to rotate in a variety of labs in his program to discover what he’s really interested in.

“The fellowship provided me a framework to change my mindset and fully delve into what it meant to be a graduate level researcher, working full time, getting experiments done, all while having the support of the department,” said Williams.

Helen Oker, 2022-2023 Ut Prosim Fellowship recipient
Helen Oker is the 2022-2023 recipient of the Ut Prosim Fellowship and was nominated by her advisor, Chloé Lahondère, associate professor of biochemistry. Photo by Cameron Warren for Virginia Tech.

The Department of Biochemistry is excited to continue to support students seeking a master’s degree and has selected Helen Oker, accelerated master’s student, as the 2022-2023 recipient of the Ut Prosim Fellowship. Her advisor, Chloé Lahondère, assistant professor of biochemistry, nominated her for the award.

For as long as Oker can remember, she was fascinated by bugs. As a kid, she would use bug vacuums to collect insects and create chambers and habitats for them in hopes to get a closer look. When Oker was introduced to the concept of invasive species through Science Olympiad in middle school, she realized that insects played a more impactful role in the environment than she’d originally thought. This interest in bugs would lead her to major in biochemistry and minor in entomology.

Oker’s perspective of insects through a biochemical perspective landed her in the Lahondère lab, where she is now working on a project to take a closer look at the mosquito species Aedes albopictus, an important disease vector native to Southeast Asia that has made its way to Blacksburg, Virginia.

Oker is responsible for observing key differences between the two strains of mosquitoes – one from Blacksburg, Virginia and one from Foshan, China. She’ll be taking note of each strain’s thermal performance levels, nutrient storage, and genetic makeup. The goal of her project is to understand how this mosquito species has adapted, figure out if their adaptations will be passed down to future generations, and learn how climate change affects their adaptation, distribution, and behavior.

Learning more about these mosquitoes will allow researchers to set up further work into reducing the spread of this invasive mosquito, find new targets for mosquito population control, and allows for the preparation and prevention of public health and environmental threats.

“There’s been so many things that have been made easier for me because my mentors, my advisor, and others in the department believed in me, especially during times when I didn’t believe in myself,” Oker said. “Once upon a time, a Ph.D. was something to aim for, but now, with the support I’ve received, getting a Ph.D. feels a lot more tangible.”

As of now, Oker is exploring her options for a Ph.D. program and is keeping her mind open, but she says her dealbreaker will be whether insects are involved.

Written by Cameron Warren