On behalf of Dean Richard Libby, it is our pleasure to announce the 2021 PhD Award recipients:
The Wallace O. Fenn Award
Brendan Whitelaw (Neurobiology and Anatomy)
Brendan entered the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Rochester in 2015, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He subsequently joined the Neurobiology and Anatomy PhD program in 2017. Brendan’s thesis work focused on the dynamics of microglial processes which are critical to the role these cells play in the healthy and diseased brain. However, the molecular processes that control microglial motility have largely been studied in artificial systems were microglia are taken out of their native brain milieu. Brendan designed and carried out a far-reaching study to show that the insight gained from previous results cannot be extrapolated to the in vivo setting.
The work he performed was a true tour de force, relying on a broad range of challenging experimental techniques and analyses. The ideas in his thesis were very much his own, and the results of his work will be very influential given how little is known about the intracellular mechanisms that determine microglial behavior in vivo. Aside from being a great scientist, Brendan’s is an award-winning teacher and mentor. Along with his thesis project, he had a number of side projects in the lab and was always willing to work collaboratively to help others with difficult experiments, leading to three co-authored publications. One of these side collaborative projects resulted in a first author paper on radiation-induced microglial changes, a topic that Brendan brought into the lab.
Brendan’s thesis exemplifies his best qualities – he is dynamic, creative, rigorous, thoughtful, hard-working and has a caring, empathic personality that will allow him to become a first rate physician scientist.
The Vincent du Vigneaud Award
Chongyang Zhang (Pharmacology)
Dr. Chongyang Zhang performed her doctoral thesis research in the laboratory of Dr. Chen Yan at the Aab Cardiovascular Research Institute (CVRI). The focus of her dissertation was the study of abdominal aorta aneurysm (AAA), a life threatening disease characterized by weakening or bulging in the main artery supplying blood to the abdomen and legs. Chongyang identified a novel role of cyclic nucleotide phosphodiesterase 1C (PDE1C) in vascular smooth muscle cell senescence and AAA formation, and provided pharmacological evidence of PDE1 inhibitors in the suppression of AAA progression in animal models.
Chongyang was also the first to show that inhibiting PDE5 by Viagra aggravated experimental AAA, which may raise a caution for clinical usage of Viagra in aneurysmal patients. These studies led to four first-author publications. Among them, one publication came with American Heart Association (AHA) News Release, indicating the importance and significance of her study. She was also awarded a prestigious AHA Predoctoral Fellowship and AHA Early Career Investigator Award.
The Leadership Award for Excellence in Equity and Inclusion
Jakob Gunderson (Toxicology)
Dr. Jakob Gunderson studied the mediators and moderators of methylmercury toxicity in the laboratory of Dr. Matthew Rand. During his time at URMC Jakobs worked helped to extend our knowledge on the classically categorized neurotoxicant methylmercury, by uncovering novel targets for the toxicity of MeHg related to the neuromuscular system. Through these efforts Jakob was the recipient of the prestigious Bernard Weiss Toxicology Award for excellence and innovative research in the field of neurotoxicology and published seven manuscripts.
Jakob was also a leader and mentor both in the lab as well as away from the bench, with clear passions for diversity, inclusion, and equity in STEM. Over the course of his graduate career Jakob was instrumental in the creation and initial set of leadership for the Toxicology programs Diversity and Inclusion Group (DIG) where he played a large role in crafting the mission and vision statements that guide the work of the group. Jakob was also involved with the formation of outGRADS where he served as the first secretary, taking on the role of determining the organization and structure of the group.
Thank you to the selection committee and to all who nominated.