SCHEV Names Columbus, Petri 2014 Outstanding Faculty Members

Headshots left to right: Dr. William A. Petri and Linda Columbus

Dr. William A. Petri and Linda Columbus

University of Virginia chemist Linda Columbus and infectious diseases researcher and physician Dr. William A. Petri have received the state’s highest honor for professors, the Outstanding Faculty Award.

The awards, given by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and sponsored by the Dominion Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dominion Virginia Power, recognize superior accomplishments in teaching, research and public service.

Columbus and Petri are among 12 faculty members selected this year from a pool of 115 applications from institutions statewide. They join 32 previous winners from U.Va. and one from U.Va.’s College at Wise since the awards were first presented 28 years ago.

Columbus, Petri and their fellow awardees will be honored Feb. 20 during a ceremony at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. Each will receive $5,000 and a commemorative engraved award.

“Professor Columbus and Dr. Petri demonstrate the seamless integration of the University’s teaching, research, service and patient care missions,” U.Va. Executive Vice President and Provost John D. Simon said. “Receiving the commonwealth’s highest honor for faculty is a recognition of their extraordinary dedication and commitment to academic rigor.”

Awardees are nominated by their peers at Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities. A selection committee, made up of members of SCHEV and education, business and community leaders, chose the 12 winners.

“The council is pleased to once again partner with Dominion to honor these extraordinary educators who help make Virginia’s system of higher education among the finest in the nation,” SCHEV director Peter Blake said. “The scholarship and dedication of these honorees is a testament to the strength of Virginia’s public and private, two-year and four-year institutions.”

Linda Columbus

“Rising Star” recipient Columbus, an associate professor of chemistry, came to U.Va. in the fall of 2007, and during her first four years brought in nearly $2 million in funding for her interdisciplinary biophysical research program. Her work focuses on the architecture and motions of membrane proteins from pathogenic bacteria, with the aim of understanding how the proteins enable bacteria to hijack normal human cellular function.

A better understanding of molecular interactions promises new insights for ways to design innovative antibiotics and vaccines that would target the root causes, at the cellular level, of an array of infectious diseases, including gonorrhea and meningitis.

Beyond her federally funded research program, Columbus has been recognized with awards and grants for developing effective undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – STEM – educational initiatives.

Integrating teaching and research underpins all of Columbus’ professional endeavors.

“Teaching science like we do science,” is her motto; she allows undergraduates to conduct scientific research in her labs as a powerful means for understanding science. She said that excelling as a scientist herself does not in any way compromise her teaching, or enthusiasm for it.

In 2009, Columbus received a National Science Foundation CAREER award, and in 2010, a Cottrell Scholar Award, both in recognition of her integration of research and education. Last year, she won an All-University Teaching Award.

In recent years Columbus completely overhauled the chemistry department’s biological chemistry curriculum, and routinely receives high marks from her students in their evaluations, often well above the department norm. She also created a popular and innovative seminar course, “From Lab Bench to Medicine Cabinet,” which introduces undergraduate students to primary literature in the field of drug discovery.

Columbus also encourages women and minority participation in science and is co-principal investigator of the Virginia-North Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation, a group of universities and colleges that encourages and facilitates scientific study and research among minority students.

“Scientific research and undergraduate STEM education are incredibly important to the future of science and technology in our country,” she said. “I am honored to be acknowledged for my small contributions to these areas.”

Dr. William A. Petri

Petri, an internationally recognized leader in the field of global health who holds both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, bridges the gap between laboratory science and patient care. A practicing physician, inventor, entrepreneur and teacher, he is chief of U.Va.’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health, which has one of the University’s largest research programs. Through his research, teaching and clinical service, Petri is recognized for his one-on-one mentorship with undergraduate, graduate and medical students, interns and fellows.

Petri is a pioneer and leader in the study of enteric infections and their consequences on the health of children. He leads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s PROVIDE study in Bangladesh and India exploring new solutions for the problem of oral poliovirus and rotavirus vaccine failures in the developing world. He and his collaborators have found that the underperformance of vaccines in the developing world is associated with malnutrition, diarrhea and shortened duration of exclusive breastfeeding.

Petri also is the most highly cited investigator in the world on amebiasis, one of the top 10 causes of diarrhea in children in the developing world. He has defined its ability to kill cells at the molecular level, developed the first FDA-cleared test for its diagnosis, and was the first person to discover that children were immune to reinfection, and that that immunity was associated with a particular antibody response. He discovered that the obesity hormone leptin plays a critical role in defense of the gut from ameba, with mutations in the receptor determining susceptibility to infection.

In 2008, the journal Nature named Petri as one of the top 20 NIH-funded scientists in the U.S. He is former president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and editor of Infection and Immunity. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, he is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American College of Physicians. He serves on advisory committees for the National Institutes of Health and is named a Best Doctor in America.

“There is a constant need to improve care of the ill,” he said. “It is the opportunity to discover, care for patients and teach others to become biomedical scientists that motivates me.”

Petri earned his M.D. and Ph.D. in microbiology at U.Va. and joined the faculty in 1988. “I am still at U.Va. because this is an environment where scholarship, teaching and service are equally valued; where scientific research is done in a collegial and supportive way; and where I have the opportunity to teach, work with and learn from undergraduate, graduate, medical students and postdoctoral fellows from varied backgrounds, interests and aspirations,” he said.

“I am thrilled to receive this award, as I feel I am a product of U.Va., having grown up professionally here over the last 30 years surrounded by great professors whom I have learned from and modeled my career.”

The Outstanding Faculty Awards program is administered by SCHEV and funded by a grant from the Dominion Foundation, which has fully supported the Outstanding Faculty Awards program since 2005.

“Dominion is proud to have sponsored the Outstanding Faculty Awards for the last 10 years,” said Hunter A. Applewhite, president of the Dominion Foundation. “Each year we are impressed by the diverse accomplishments of these talented professors. These individuals strengthen their communities and the commonwealth through their commitment to discovering and sharing knowledge. They serve as an inspiration not only to the students in their classrooms but to all Virginians.”

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