Two biology undergraduates receive Award for Academic Distinction

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Division of Biological Sciences

Seniors Brittney Marshall and Rohit Rao received the 2019 University of Missouri Award for Academic Distinction.

The award recognizes undergraduate students who go above and beyond expectations to contribute to the academic atmosphere at the University of Missouri. Rao and Marshall were among 15 students selected for the distinguished honor.

Rao accepts his award from Dr. Jim Spain

Rao has been carrying out research on a project involving purification of proteins from HIV and hepatitis B (HBV) viruses and then testing the effect of inhibitors on HIV-1 reverse transcriptase. His research project, which has been done in conjunction with former MU Professor Stefan Sarafianos (now with Emory University), has earned him co-authorship on three scientific papers with another one currently under review and plans for a fifth one in the works. Rao was one of ten students selected for early induction into the academic honorary Phi Beta Kappa. In addition to excelling academically, Rao has volunteered at the MedZou Community Health Clinic, led the MU Club Tennis team, served as a TA in an upper-level histology course, and participated in three Mizzou Alternative Break trips, including two as co-site leader.

“Rohit is somebody who really took advantage of all that Mizzou has to offer,” said Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor Thomas Phillips, who nominated Rao for the award. “He is the type of well-rounded and fully engaged student that faculty love having in their classes.”

Marshall and Rosenfeld

Marshall has been investigating how the behaviors, cognition and gut microbiome of mice are altered when they are exposed to xenoestrogens, such as BPA and genistein, while in the womb. She is particularly interested in looking for correlations to autism-like behaviors, such as alterations in sociability and cognition. Her research, which she carries out in  the lab Cheryl Rosenfeld in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, has earned her co-authorship on one scientific paper with another one currently under review and a third in the works. Marshall won first place in the Social & Behavioral Sciences category for her research poster at the 2018 MU Life Sciences Week and was invited to share her research with legislators at the State Capitol. Outside the lab and classroom, she has been active in the Peer Undergraduate Mentor Program, Granny’s House, MizzouThon, Mizzou Alternative Break, and a therapeutic riding center. She is a member of Mortar Board and was named one of five Outstanding Seniors by the Division of Biological Sciences.

“It has been a true pleasure and honor to have Brittney in my lab and witness her maturation into a bright, inquisitive, and highly capable scientist and compassionate individual. I look forward to seeing all she achieves in the coming years,” said Rosenfeld of her mentee.

Gebken with Makenzi Mabry, her graduate student mentor from the Pires lab.

Also singled out for the award was Sarah Gebken, a senior biological engineering major who has carried out research in the lab of Professor J. Chris Pires since her freshman year. Gebken has been using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to advance questions about the evolution of new traits in plants. Over the course of her undergraduate career, the McNair Scholar has received a summer fellowship to work on a gene therapy project at Johns Hopkins University as well as a Sigma Xi research grant to support her research in the Pires lab. Most recently, she was awarded a competitive graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which will allow her to pursue her graduate work at Washington University in St. Louis (read more). Her academic and research record are not the only ways Gebken stands out, according to her mentor and nominator.

“She also takes time to help others to learn,” he shared. “Sarah worked with a graduate student in my lab to design a lab for teaching DNA extraction for elementary school kids. Not only did Sarah do a great job with ideas of how to teach a tough subject to young kids, she also was great with the kids while the lab was being conducted. She also has been mentoring other undergraduates in our lab.”

The Office of Undergraduate Studies held a reception in their honor on May 5.