Mizzou Biology graduate students celebrated for research, teaching

Mizzou Biology congratulates the following graduate students who have been recognized for their research and teaching.

Williams-Simon with her Ph.D. mentor, Dr. Elizabeth King.

Patricka Williams-Simon is the winner of this year’s Ethel Sue Lumb Award for Excellence in Graduate Studies.

The award is given by the Division of Biological Sciences to a graduate student who has demonstrated exceptional promise in research and scholarly activities.

Fruit flies have evolved physiological mechanisms to adapt to rapidly warming temperatures. As an ectotherm, a fly’s body temperature reflects that of its surroundings. At the same time, these animals also have adapted cognitive practices, such as learning and memory, which help them escape extreme temperatures. Williams-Simon is using a combination of behavioral experiments and advanced genomic and bioinformatic approaches to examine these complex traits and how they relate genetically. Williams-Simon has carried out her research in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth King as well as in the lab of the late Dr. Troy Zars.

Williams-Simon has been a champion of diversity since she arrived on campus as Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) Scholars. In 2015, she founded Mi-STEM, a social and professional networking organization for minority graduate students on campus. While ostensibly for students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, under her leadership the group has evolved to become broadly inclusive to all academic disciplines and underrepresented groups.

In 2018, Williams-Simon was awarded a prestigious Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. These fellowships are awarded to exceptional doctoral students who have the potential to be leaders in their fields and who desire to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

Dr. John C. Walker, Director of the Division of Biological Sciences, surprised Williams-Simon with the award at a King lab meeting.

Mabry with her Ph.D. mentor, Dr. J. Chris Pires.

Makenzie Mabry was selected to receive the Sandra K. Abell Science Education Award from MU’s Graduate School.

The award, which includes a $1500 prize, recognizes the outstanding achievements of a graduate student pursuing Ph.D. studies in any natural science discipline who has demonstrated a dual passion for both research and teaching.

Mabry, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Dr. J. Chris Pires’ lab, is a plant biologist interested in the role that whole genome duplication events play in the emergence of new traits. She carries out her studies in the family Brassicales and is particularly interested in the species Brassica oleracea, which includes cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, and other common cultivars. Her research sheds light on whether a genome doubling event in the plant’s recent evolutionary history underlies the rich morphological diversity that characterizes the species. In the process of carrying out her studies, Mabry resolved a long-standing debate about the origins of this important crop, providing important insights into its domestication. She also is using advanced -omic techniques to pinpoint specific genes important in determining the diversity and abundance of glucosinolates, the chemical compound that gives the vegetables in the Brassica family their sharp, bitter taste.

Mabry is enthusiastic about sharing her passion for science and plants with students and the public. She has ignited undergraduate students’ curiosity for plants first as a teaching assistant in Plant Systematics and now as the instructor of record for the course. In 2017, her students singled her out for commendation with receipt of MU’s 2017 TA Choice Award. She also has mentored a number of undergraduate students carrying out independent research projects in the lab. She works closely with her mentees to fully develop their bench skills as well as their professional skills, including how to communicate their research results and impact. Her mentees benefit from more than just her research and teaching skills, according to Professor J. Chris Pires.

“Makenzie is like a coach who gets her team motivated to succeed as both individuals and as a group. She sets high standard but helps them all hit the mark. She creates a culture of sharing and positive feedback where healthy criticism is not only welcome but expected,” shared Pires. “As an award-winning mentor myself, my greatest compliment would be to say that I have learned as much from Makenzie as she has from me on developing leaders, scholars, and citizens. She is truly inspiring in this regard.”

Beyond the lab, Mabry has a strong record of science outreach, having shared her research at local schools and events as well as on a syndicated podcast and helps organize and run CoMo Science on Tap.

Dr. Sandra K. Abell was a Curators’ Distinguished Professor who held a joint appointment with both the Division of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science and the Department of Science Education in the College of Education. She was respected as a champion of science education at the MU and inspired graduate students in science disciplines across campus to embrace teaching as a creative and rewarding endeavor. The Abell Science Education Award was created to honor her memory.

Mabry was recognized at an awards banquet sponsored by the MU Graduate School in April.

Kick with his Ph.D. mentor, Dr. David Schulz.

Daniel R. Kick was selected to receive the J. Perry Gustafson Award for Outstanding Graduate Research in the Life Sciences.

The award is given to a Ph.D. student conducting life sciences research in the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, College of Veterinary Medicine, Comparative Medicine Program, Division of Biological Sciences, or College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The honor comes with a $2,000 prize.

Kick is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Dr. David Schulz lab in the Division of Biological Sciences. His research deals with understanding the coupling between neurons and how this affects network output, especially in the face of change. Specifically, his work seeks a better understanding of how neuron coupling is affected by activity, how neurons compensate for disruptions over the short and longer term, and how networks can be remodeled when a portion of it goes awry. With these questions answered, science will have a better understanding of how a neural network maintains appropriate output despite constant changes and where it has failed in instances of pathology.

“Beyond this, Daniel is the full package, having maintained a strong academic record, a strong and growing publication record, while also being involved a variety of additional activities, including mentoring of undergraduate students, serving as a teaching assistant, as well as participating in a variety of leadership roles,” said Curators’ Distinguished Professor Gary Stacey, who is on the committee that selected the winner. “His research mentors sang his praises and emphasized his research talent and experience, not only as a biologist but his computational skills, independence, intellect, and overall character.”

The award honors the career of J. Perry Gustafson, an adjunct professor emeritus in the Division of Plant Sciences. While at Mizzou, Gustafson built a strong program focused on wheat cytogenetics – and mentored more than 25 students and more than 50 international scientists. His research focused on understanding genetic mechanisms that control the introduction and expression of genes in wheat, using genetic, cytogenetic and molecular approaches.

Kick received the award at a ceremony held in conjunction with the 2019 Life Sciences Week sponsored by the Bond Life Sciences Center.

Ronnie LaCombe

Ronnie Lacombe was chosen for one of this year’s TA Choice Awards given out by the Missouri Students Association.

The award recognizes teaching assistants in all areas of education at MU for upholding excellent standards in the educational process. Out of 280 nominations, 10 TAs were selected to receive the award. LaCombe was chosen for her exemplary work in BioSci 2200, General Genetics, with Dr. Kathy Newton.

LaCombe is completing her graduate studies this semester. Her dissertation research focused on a family of proteins, called Ephs, that have been implicated in tumorigenesis. She confirmed expression of these proteins in Rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive cancer in children that affects skeletal muscle tissue. Moreover, she found that expression of one of these proteins, which is normally on the cell surface, is expressed in the nucleus of RMS cells. Abnormal localization of similar Eph proteins in tumor cells from lung cancer has been connected to resistance to radiation therapy. Thus, her finding may suggest a potential target for future therapeutic research for RMS. LaCombe carries out her graduate studies in the lab of Dr. D Cornelison.

LaCombe was presented with the TA Choice Award at a banquet hosted by the MSA on April 29. She was presented with a plaque that included a quote from her nominator. It read, “Sincere dedication and care, she has to be one in a million.”

Emilia Asante

Emilia Asante was recognized recently by the MU Graduate School for her receipt of the Dr. Donald M. Suggs Dissertation Fellowship for the 2018-2019 school year.

The $2000 fellowship is given to two Ph.D. students whose work offers the potential for advancing academic scholarship within their field of study.

Asante, who is a fifth-year Ph.D. student, will use the fellowship to support her research on facial branchiomotor (FBM) neurons. These neurons, which are located in the hindbrain, innervate muscles involved in chewing, swallowing, and a variety of other facial movements. This set of neurons has become a model to analyze the effects of improper neuronal migration on brain function. For her dissertation, Asante is exploring the relationship between behavior and circuit organization due to neuronal migration abnormalities of the FBM neurons in zebrafish. She carries out her research in the lab of Dr. Anand Chandrasekhar.

Asante was formally presented with the award last fall at the St. Louis American Salute to Excellence in Education Gala, St. Louis, MO. She was recognized by MU at the Fifth Annual Graduate and Postdoctoral Awards Banquet held this spring.