2016 Award Winners

Excellence in Scientific Persistence Award

Mara Deluca, University of West Alabama (Professor – Dr. Mustafa Morsy) 

Joseph P. Caruso Award for Excellence in Mentorship

Dr. Mary Miller, Baton Rouge Community College

Dr. Elia Crisucci, University of Pittsburgh

SWI Support Person of the Year Award

Dr. Debra Davis, Wingate University

Dr. Kristen Butela, Seton Hill University

Best-in-Session Student Poster Award

Stephanie Morgan, New College of Florida (Professors – Drs. Eric Warrick & Brittany Gasper)

Honorable Mentions:

Best Contribution to the Collaboration – Connie Shen, McGill (Professor – Dr. Samantha Gruenheid)

Best Interdisciplinary Connections – Matthew Greenwald, University of Pittsburgh (Professor – Dr. Jean Schmidt)

Scavenger Hunt Winning Team

First Place – University of Pittsburgh Team (Professor – Dr. Jean Schmidt)

Team Member Roster: Nicole Hunzeker, Ashwinee Manivannan, Stephen Reber, and Mason Trinkle

Second Place – Baton Rouge Community College Team (Professor – Dr. Mary Miller)

Team Roster: Tiffany Brown, Lee Chantel, James McCleary, Meagan Moore (photographer extraordinaire), and Ajay Prasad

Third Place – The Hockaday School Team (Professor – Dr. Barbara Fishel)

Team Roster: Sara Held, Helena Hind, and Lily Johnson

Excellence in Scientific Persistence Awardee Profile

Award Criteria

The Excellence in Scientific Persistence Award recognizes students who demonstrate exceptional endurance for research and learning goals of the Small World Initiative. The recipient devoted significant commitment and effort to SWI project goals and/or displayed noteworthy perseverance in overcoming setbacks or hurdles during the SWI experience. The recipient displayed a high degree of tenacity and stamina for the SWI project in one or more of the following ways:

  • Exceptional time commitment to the SWI course learning outcomes and/or research goals
  • Exceptional intellectual commitment to SWI research goals
  • Exceptional attitudes, mindsets, and behaviors that positively impacted the SWI classroom community
  • Exceptional constancy and commitment to SWI in spite of significant challenges or circumstances
  • Other attributes not described above that are especially deserving of recognition and exemplify persistence

Mara Deluca, University of West Alabama (Professor – Dr. Mustafa Morsy) 

As a freshman, thanks to her hard work and dedication in her Small World Initiative (SWI) class, Mara was awarded second place in her school’s poster competition held just eight weeks after her class started. Remarkably, this was the first time in the competition’s history for a freshman to win an award. Subsequently, she has been an advocate for the course, mentored others, and volunteered as a teaching assistant to SWI Partner Instructor, Dr. Mustafa Morsy. Continuing her commitment to SWI's project goals, Mara is even writing her honors thesis on bacterial diversity and antibiotic production in response to salt. When asked why she chose this work, she responded that SWI has helped her start a science career that she firmly believes will help her meet her original goal of positively impacting many lives. We are pleased to recognize Mara for her persistence and thank her instructor Dr. Mustafa Morsy for providing her the space, opportunity, and encouragement to flourish.

Joseph P. Caruso Excellence in Mentorship Awardee Profiles

Award Criteria

"I'd like to be able to show non-major students how much fun discovery-based science is and why it's important for everybody." – J. Caruso

The Joseph P. Caruso Award for Excellence in Mentorship is presented to a SWI Partner Instructor (SWIPI) who embodies a passion for teaching and mentoring undergraduate students in discovery-based science curriculum and/or mentoring other SWIPIs. The award pays tribute and remembrance to the qualities of scientist-teacher Dr. Caruso and recognizes individuals who go above and beyond the basic expectations of an advisor or mentor:

  • Exceptional commitment to teaching and personally mentoring SWI students in scientific inquiry
  • Commitment to mentoring endeavors that integrate SWI students with the broader scientific community, through presentation or publication venues, funding opportunities, facilitating professional development opportunities, etc.
  • Outstanding support for SWI Partner Instructors or new trainees
  • Exceptional leadership and service to SWI programming in support of students success; genuine concern for and commitment to SWI student and instructor success
  • Support for the establishment, achievement, and/or revision of individual or community SWI goals
  • Outstanding contributions that challenge and motivate SWI students to excel and succeed
  • Commitment to improving attitudes, retention, and persistence in STEM
  • Other contributions not described above that have made a positive impact on SWI’s mission, programming, student success, and faculty development

Dr. Mary Miller, Baton Rouge Community College 

Mentors can be transformational in inspiring and supporting students as they develop and plot their future. Studies have shown that students without a sense of direction are more likely to drop out of school. Mentors can help students gain a sense of direction and encourage them to persist in their studies. Mentors guide and advise students from their own experiences, and with this knowledge, students can make thoughtful and informed decisions concerning their future. Dr. Mary Miller embodies the best qualities of a mentor and has a demonstrated commitment to taking on roles that allow her to form a lasting connection with students. Dr. Miller is the STEM Club Faculty Advisor, Undergraduate Research Coordinator, Faculty Senate Member, and Academic Assessment Chair at Baton Rouge Community College.

When Dr. Miller was initially approached to join SWI in 2013, she was very hesitant about becoming a Partner Instructor. She was worried that participating in SWI might involve excessive work. She was eventually encouraged by a friend to consider SWI, and she took the time to understand SWI’s mission and requirements. Dr. Miller believes that her eventual decision to join SWI has significantly improved her courses. She had always wanted to bring research opportunities to her students at an introductory age, and through SWI, she has been able to accomplish this goal as well as impact students in a positive way. According to Dr. Miller, “Research really ignites their fire. It forces them to be more responsible, on task, organized, and dedicated.” In the classroom, her students have to look up research articles and come prepared to carry out the experiment planned for that day. Dr. Miller believes this encourages students to be better students and acquire skills that are necessary in professional school. Not only does Dr. Miller mentor her own students, but she also has been invited on multiple occasions to give inspirational speeches to SWI students and faculty at conferences in the United Kingdom. Her ability to garner enthusiasm is not bound by international borders.

SWI's President & CEO, Erika Kurt, remarks, "It is obvious within a few minutes of your first contact with Mary that she feel very passionately about her students' learning and how much she loves SWI as a mechanism to teach. In addition to her own teaching activities at Baton Rouge Community College, where she teaches SWI each semester, Mary's mentorship extends beyond her school as she has been a great resource and inspiration for the UK SWI cohort. She is very creative in designing new modules for teaching her students and gets them involved in sharing their knowledge. Mary embodies everything that SWI intends to promote: innovative independent research that retains STEM majors for future careers." 

Her strong ability to mentor students is not a skill that was developed overnight. Dr. Miller had several mentors that have shaped her into the person she is today. Her grandfather was her personal mentor who taught her everything on how to move forward in life and the importance of a strong work ethic. He was her childhood hero and a huge influence in her life. Dr. Gary Howard, Dr. Miller’s professor in college, was her professional mentor who gave her a position in his lab. He encouraged her to learn and work independently under his supervision rather than dictate to her every aspect of the research experiments.

Today, Dr. Miller emulates the teachings of her mentors by encouraging students to learn and grow in the process. She strives to empower responsible young adults with a strong work ethic who are capable of making novel discoveries in the future. According to Dr. Miller, an excellent mentor is one who is devoted to his/her students outside of the classroom experience. As part of the CDC Do Something About Antibiotics Challenge, Dr. Miller encouraged her students to impact the rest of the Baton Rouge Community College student body. Her students put together a citizen science project and held a 3-hour hands-on event. This event attracted 260 students, 180 of which were non-biology majors, and they won an honorable mention from the CDC.

We were pleased to award Dr. Miller with the Joseph P. Caruso Award for Excellence in Mentorship, an honor presented to a SWI Partner Instructor who embodies a passion for teaching and mentoring students and other faculty in discovery-based science curriculum. To learn more about Dr. Miller, please read Julie Wolf’s article profiling her for the American Society for Microbiology here.

Dr. Elia Crisucci, University of Pittsburgh 

Mentors can have a profound effect on the lives of students, something Dr. Elia Crisucci at the University of Pittsburg truly believes in. While earning her Bachelor of Science at Youngstown State University and her PhD at the University of Pittsburg, Dr. Crisucci developed a passion for molecular and genetic biology, a passion she now shares with her students. She teaches a Small World Initiative-based course called Foundations of Biology. The students who take this class are primarily freshmen and sophomores who are just getting their feet wet in research experience. In order to inspire engagement and participation from her students, Dr. Crisucci employs a multitude of skills and tactics that has earned her the Joseph P. Caruso Award for Excellence in Mentorship.

Crisucci understands the importance of having a mentor and the responsibilities that role entails. She believes mentors are people whom a student can “bounce ideas off of and draw on their experiences. They are a great source of encouragement and inspiration as well as people who understand the ins and outs of your desired field.” Crisucci learned to be an excellent professor from her own mentor, Dr. Karen Arndt of the University of Pittsburg. Dr. Arndt provided her endless advice and support, along with research and professional opportunities, which helped shape her career. In addition, she recognizes Drs. Jean Schmitt, Sam Donavan, and Valerie Oke as colleagues that continue to provide her with similar support and guidance.

Dr. Crisucci embodies these qualities when mentoring her own students. She takes time to sit down with each student to understand each one individually. She provides advice and encouragement and is a cheerleader for their successes. She does this all while providing the correct balance of advice and independent exploration, giving her students room for failure and the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. In the classroom, she creates an inspiring and supportive environment. Such support allows the students to develop their lab skills and confidence in themselves, qualities which they will carry for the rest of their lives. The incredible dedication and effort she puts into mentoring her students pays off when she watches them grow throughout the semester. Dr. Crisucci explains, “They start off hesitant and eventually get more and more confident and develop more and more skills. When they present their projects at the end of the semester, they are experts. They feel comfortable talking about it and can even troubleshoot their projects on the spot.” Reflecting on her approach and advice is one way Dr. Crisucci keeps improving herself. She is constantly analyzing the approaches that work and those that don’t and tailors unique and different ways to engage each student individually.

Dr. Crisucci’s involvement in the Small Word Initiative (SWI) started in 2013, following the first pilot at Yale University. Her colleague, Dr. Jean Schmitt, sent around an email at the University of Pittsburg recruiting faculty for this exciting program. The opportunity seemed perfect for Dr. Crisucci because she was looking for ways to “incorporate real research into lab classes.” SWI offered an exciting way for her to engage students and spark their interest in the course and the sciences in general. Once she joined the SWI community, Dr. Crisucci realized she had joined a “community of innovative, supportive, [and] inspiring leaders and educators.” Essentially, she gained a community of great mentors. 

According to SWI's Executive Director, Erika Kurt, "Elia's passion for teaching fuels her students' desires to the put forth their best effort. In hearing from her students, it is evident that Elia truly cares about her students getting the most out of the class. I recall one of her students remarking how Elia helped each and every student grow as scientists and made the class a positive experience from which everyone was able to benefit." This is Dr. Crisucci’s fourth year teaching her SWI course, and she continues to inspire and educate those around her, students and faculty alike. We are so pleased to recognize her commitment to and impact on her students with the Joseph P. Caruso Award for Excellence in Mentorship.

SWI Support Person of the Year Awardee Profile

Award Criteria

The SWI Support Person of the Year Award honors SWI Partner Instructors, support staff, and volunteers who have gone above and beyond and given significant time, talents, and resources in the past year to advance SWI’s success. The recipient is recognized for extensive contributions to support and advance SWI programming and teaching/learning or for extending SWI’s reach, reputation, and success.

Dr. Debra Davis, Wingate University

Dr. Debra Davis, Assistant Professor at Wingate University in North Carolina, takes every opportunity she can to leave the United States and explore the world. Originally from Jamaica, she takes time to visit family there and to explore other Caribbean Islands. However, one place Dr. Davis does not like leaving is her microbiology lab at Wingate University. As an undergrad at the University of London, she began her academic journey with a passion to save Jamaica’s beautiful coral reefs as a marine biologist. After gaining some experience in the field, her interests shifted into the world of bacteria. Dr. Davis is still amazed by the field every day. Her research has focused on salt marshes and the bacteria and microbes that flourish in them. Now, she shares her passion with her students. Dr. Davis teaches an environmental microbiology course as well as a Small World Initiative (SWI) introductory level microbiology course for non-science majors. Trying to get non-science major students to enjoy and learn from a science course may seem like a tiring feat for some, but for Dr. Davis, that is her favorite part. SWI’s approach fosters interest in such lab research. Dr. Davis describes one of the joys of teaching as “seeing the faces of students when she tells them antibiotics come out of the dirt.”

Dr. Davis believes in SWI’s goals. On a daily basis, she experiences the excitement that her students feel when performing the lab work. Whenever a student finds something interesting under the microscope, “there are high fives all around.” She explains that, because of its discovery-based nature, which allows students to find original solutions, the SWI curriculum makes it is easier for non-science majors to understand the real-world application of research. At the same time, Dr. Davis is constantly creating new ways to keep her students engaged and excited. For instance, she has hosted debates in the classroom on the Zika Virus and other current public health issues. She says that when students understand the antibiotic crisis and realize they are involved in the solution, it drives them and sparks their interest. Over the course of her class, she watches her students express themselves through their own work, speak confidently about their projects, and have intelligent, informed discussions about what they have learned. They are always eager to share their accomplishments with their friends.

Dr. Davis first got involved with SWI when an old friend from Jamaica, who is now her colleague, forwarded her an article that “had her name written all over it.” They both applied and were accepted in 2014. She began with teaching the course and gradually became more involved with the organization. In 2015, Dr. Davis helped facilitate an instructor training workshop with Dr. Ana Maria Barral at National University in California where she really stood out. Subsequently, she was tapped to chair the SWI’s Training Committee and was instrumental in leading SWI’s instructor training workshop with Dr. Nichole Broderick at the University of Connecticut. Dr. Davis truly enjoyed leading such a great group of people and feels lucky that she was given this opportunity. According to SWI’s Executive Director, Erika Kurt, “Beyond being an inspirational teacher, Debra has done an exceptional job leading the Training Committee. This includes coordinating complicated logistics and putting together compelling content and instruction. She has truly gone above and beyond in contributing to SWI’s success and passing her enthusiasm for teaching SWI to other faculty.”

Dr. Davis has also accomplished personal feats of her own in her SWI class. She has had four students convert to biology majors after completing her class, has had students attend the symposium organized by the American Society for Microbiology every year, and has received a lot of attention for her ability to inspire athletes in the sciences. We recognize Dr. Davis’s dedication, commitment, and thoroughly positive attitude with SWI’s Support Person of the Year Award.

Dr. Kristen Butela, Seton Hill University 

“One thing important in science courses is getting students involved in lab work early on.”
Kristen Butela

Dr. Kristen Butela, Associate Professor of Biology at Seton Hill University, teaches courses in microbiology and often gives students the opportunity to conduct research with her. She enjoys educating her students through hands-on research because of “the excitement behind not being able to determine what is going to happen in the lab from one day to the next. The student and teacher are in the same boat; we equalize each other.”   

According to SWI’s Executive Director, Erika Kurt, “Kristen really stands out thanks to her leadership of the Science Committee, her initiative to bring the Small World Initiative to multiple disciplines, and her thoughtful recommendations.” When Dr. Butela joined SWI as a Pilot Partner in 2013, she was looking for a way to get students more involved in lab research, and SWI was an opportunity for her to do just that. As part of the original cohort that trained at Yale University, she has been influential in how the program has developed and teaches SWI every year. In 2015, Dr. Butela was tapped to Co-Chair the Science Committee where she leads work to help achieve SWI’s scientific goals. As part of that work, over the course of the 2015-2016 academic year, Dr. Butela dedicated significant time to improving the breadth and content of SWI’s biosafety resources in conjunction with Science Committee Co-Chair Dr. Gruenheid, a team of NIH biosafety fellows, and SWI’s leadership.

Dr. Butela is incredibly reliable, provides expert advice, and readily takes on responsibility. During SWI’s 3rd Annual Symposium at ASM Microbe, she scrupulously evaluated all of the student poster competition entries following the initial round of judging to help ensure that students were recognized for their achievements. In addition, she led SWI’s first biosafety training that will serve as a model year after year during the instructor training workshop at the University of Connecticut. Dr. Butela has been an important buttress for SWI, and we are happy to recognize her with a SWI Support Person of the Year Award. For the coming year, Dr. Butela will continue her role co-chairing the Science Committee, and she is working on implementing SWI modules across different disciplines at Seton Hill University.

Best-in-Session Student Poster Award

Award Criteria

The Best-in-Session Student Poster Award is presented to SWI students who exhibit exceptional scientific communication skills during the annual SWI Symposium at ASM Microbe. The recipient will have demonstrated outstanding achievement presenting scientific work with confidence, eloquence, and ownership. Judges to the poster session will select the recipient based on mastery of:

  • Scientific argumentation – Claims were clearly presented and supported by high quality data. Presentation of data was clear, thorough, and logical and used excellent visual representations. 
  • Project ownership – The significance of research findings was clearly explained and connected to original SWI research purpose. Follow up experiments, improvements to research, and future directions were masterfully articulated. Terminology was used eloquently and professionally, and led lively and engaged discussion about research project. Demonstrated command of the subject matter, and answered questions thoroughly and confidently.
  • Visual appeal – poster components were clearly organized and easy to follow. Text is concise, background unobtrusive, white space was well utilized; fonts and use of color were well balanced. Photographs/tables/graphs and/or models improved understanding, and enhanced visual appeal. 

Stephanie Morgan, New College of Florida (Professors – Drs. Eric Warrick (State College of Florida), Brittany Gasper (Florida Southern College), Katherine Walstrom (New College of Florida))

At just twenty-two years old, Stephanie Morgan has already made a new discovery that has distinguished her as a promising researcher. A lover of the natural world within and around her, Stephanie has identified a bacterial strain with distinct pink colony morphology and is researching its genome to find out more about its relationship to other existing bacteria. At the Small World Initiative’s 3rd Annual Symposium at ASM Microbe in Boston this June, Stephanie eloquently presented her discovery and original research, earning the Best-in-Session Student Poster Award from a panel of judges.

As part of her research, Stephanie identified a bacterial organism with bright pink colony morphology using a polyphonic approach (phylogenetic/biochemical, physical characterization). A multilocus sequence analysis using several conserved genes from the genome found that it was most closely related to Vibrio ruber. She also purified some of the compounds responsible for the bacterial organism’s bright pink color and identified them as prodigiosin derivatives. Within her organism’s genome, she found a prodigiosin biosynthesis gene cluster with structural and sequence homology similar to known prodigiosin biosynthesis genes in Serratia marcescens.

Stephanie is no ordinary researcher. She recently graduated from New College of Florida with a Bachelor’s in Chemistry and Biology. She is currently working in a lab in Sarasota, Florida for a small company but is also looking into going to graduate school in the fall of 2017 or 2018 to pursue a degree in molecular biology or biochemistry. In her free time, she likes to go kayaking, bouldering, or playing guitar or ukulele. The first two activities bring her to the same natural spaces she is studying as a researcher hunting for new antibiotic candidates.

Stephanie was an artsy kid when she was younger, always painting, sewing, and crafting things. She also took dance lessons for years and played quite a few different instruments. It might seem illogical that she ended up in the sciences. However, as Stephanie shares, “I have never felt more creative [than I feel] when I am in a lab. It is the creative side of planning experiments and troubleshooting that continues to excite me about research.” The creativity that she brings to her research has helped her excel.

When asked what is something that no one would know about her by just looking at her, she took the opportunity to boast about her microbiome. “Most of the cells that make up my body are actually helpful bacterial cells.”

Stephanie first heard about the Small World Initiative after she had taken a microbiology lecture and lab at State College of Florida. She found it fascinating and spoke about it often in her other classes. At the time, she was a student in Dr. Warrick's General Biology class; near the end of the course, he approached her and asked her to participate in the school’s pilot Small World Initiative course. 

Stephanie’s SWI project became her senior thesis project after she transferred to New College of Florida. Since New College does not offer a major in microbiology, her SWI project allowed her to continue to explore an interest that she is passionate about. It became a platform for pushing herself to learn many new things. She taught herself how to use a genome browsing program (Artemis) and a phylogenetic program (MEGA7) just so that she could learn more about her pink bacteria. She also took an organic structure elucidation course to aid with determining the molecular structure of the pink pigment. It was one of the most interesting courses she took during her undergraduate studies, and she might not have taken it if it was not for her SWI project. Having started the project from the very beginning and having a large say in the direction of the project, she also felt a large amount of ownership and pride over her thesis. 

After having put so much work into her research, Stephanie was excited to have the opportunity to speak with other microbiologists from all over the world about it and found the experience at ASM Microbe very validating. Stephanie would like to thank Drs. Warrick and Walstrom for all of their support on this project, both personally and in lab. We were thrilled to award Stephanie the well-deserved Best-in-Session Student Poster Award.

Poster Title – Discovery of a Novel Prodigiosin Producing Vibrio species from the Gulf of Mexico

Poster Abstract – As a part of the Small World Initiative project, environmental samples taken from a salt flat in Bradenton, FL led to the discovery of a Vibrio organism capable of producing a bright pink compound. A crude extract of cultured bacterial cells contained a broad spectrum antibiotic capable of inhibiting growth of several ESKAPE safe relatives. As a continuation of the project, full genomic sequencing of the isolate and analysis of the genomic sequence utilizing the genome browser Artemis, NCBI’s BLAST and Clustal Omega was performed. Identification of the isolate was done using a polyphasic approach including biochemical characterization and multi-locus sequence analysis with genes found in the isolate genome. The isolate was identified as a member of the Vibrio genus within the gazogenes clade.

Furthermore, the pigment compound was isolated using a multistep purification procedure and analyzed with UV-Visible spectroscopy and tandem mass spectrometry. Prodigiosin was identified as being the main component of the extract and two other simple derivative prodiginine pigments were identified based on the known molecular weight and fragmentation patterns identified in the mass spectra. Additionally, a prodiginine biosynthesis gene cluster consisting of 13 genes with sequence homology to prosigiosin biosynthesis gene clusters in Serratia species was found in the genome of the isolate. Prodigiosins are biomolecules produced by a variety of bacterial organisms as secondary metabolites. They are often brightly colored pigment molecules with unique chemical properties that have been studied for their applications in both medicine and industry.