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Celebrating excellence in research: 2023 College of Science Awards

By Hannah Ashton

The College of Science gathered on Feb. 22 to recognize and celebrate our high achieving faculty and staff at the 2023 Combined Awards Ceremony. The evening celebrated the very best in the College, from teaching, advising and research to inclusive excellence, administration and service.

During the research awards portion of the evening, the College saluted innovative discoveries made by faculty and staff who are breaking the boundaries of their respective fields. Each of the recipients below exemplifies the College's commitment to curiosity-driven research, elevating the visibility of Oregon State University on a global level.

Milton Harris Award for Basic Research in Science

Four individuals pose for a picture. David Ji holds an award.

From left to right: Virginia Weis, Xiulei (David) Ji, David Ji and Vrushali Bokil.

Chemistry Professor Xiulei “David” Ji received the Milton Harris Award for his profound contributions in battery chemistry for energy storage.

This award was endowed by G. Milton Harris, a Portland native who received his bachelor’s degree in 1926 from Oregon State and his Ph.D. from Yale University. He was a pioneer in polymer, fiber and textile science and was the founder and for many years president of Harris Research Laboratories, which later became part of Gillette. The purpose of the Milton Harris award is to recognize exceptional achievement in basic research.

Ji is an internationally known scholar in materials chemistry, praised for his out-of-the-box ideas. His total citations have reached nearly 33,000 according to Google Scholar and Web of Science named him a most cited researcher for four years in a row starting in 2019.

“In my opinion, David is one of the most creative and productive materials chemists of his generation,” wrote one nominator. “Driven by both curiosity and a passion for sustainability, David’s research has been advancing the fundamental knowledge of electrochemical energy storage, especially in new battery chemistry.”

Last year Ji received three grants, two from the National Science Foundation and one from the Department of Energy Basic Energy Sciences program. The $3 million BES grant involves collaboration with PIs from four other institutions who will work together to invent new anion battery chemistry to address the limits of current Li-ion batteries.

Because of Ji, Oregon State has been home to fundamental breakthroughs such as the discovery of reversible electrochemical insertion of K-ions into graphite and the observation of the Grotthuss mechanism in a proton battery.

One nominator wrote, “David’s research has frequently redefined the boundaries of battery chemistry.”

F.A. Gilfillan Award for Distinguished Scholarship

Four individuals pose for a picture. Wei Kong holds an award.

From left to right: Virginia Weis, Wei Kong, Vrushali Bokil and Mas Subramanian.

Department of Chemistry Head and Professor Wei Kong received the F.A Gilfillan Award for Distinguished Scholarship, which honors faculty members in the College of Science whose scholarship and scientific accomplishments have extended over a substantial period of time, especially faculty whose research careers have had a significant impact on his or her field.

Kong’s research focuses on developing a method that addresses a great challenge in the scientific world – obtaining high-resolution atomic structures of biological macromolecules and nanomaterials.

Kong arrived at Oregon State in 1995 and has been a full professor since 2005. In her first year, she received both the NSF CAREER and Sloan awards, demonstrating herself as a leader in experimental physical chemistry.

Since then, she developed a new sub-area of research in the field of molecular spectroscopy, focusing on measurements of linear dichroism in large-oriented organic and biological molecules.

Subsequently, under her direction, the Kong Research Group developed a new method called single-molecule serial electron diffraction imaging. The method combines cutting-edge technologies such as superfluid helium droplets in physical chemistry, electrospray spray ionization in analytical chemistry, and Fourier transform optical imaging in physics, to obtain diffraction images of molecules oriented by a laser field and a pulse electric field.

“She has taken on these high risks, sufficiently informed and insightful, to see a path forward where others saw the boulders,” one nominator wrote.

Kong’s research has culminated in 80 peer-reviewed publications including multiple in top-tier journals, four invited reviews, three book chapters and 34 invited conference presentations. She has mentored numerous students and postdoctoral researchers, all while securing nearly $5 million in funding from national agencies and another $1 million from state and Oregon State University sources.

Dean’s Early Career Achievement Award

Outdoor photo of Molly Burke

Assistant Professor Molly Burke

Evolutionary biologist Molly Burke received the Dean’s Early Career Achievement Award. This award recognizes exceptional achievement in research and education by an early-career, tenure-track faculty member.

An emerging leader in experimental evolution, genomics and aging, Burke has demonstrated excellence in mentorship and research. She successfully applied evolve and resequence approaches to sexually reproducing organisms, unlocking the potential for new advances in medicine and agriculture. The paper announcing this achievement has been cited more than 400 times, chosen as an F1000 selection and featured in The New York Times among other media outlets.

One nominator, a well-respected evolutionary biologist, said “Burke is one of the most creative people working in experimental evolution today.”

Last summer, the National Institutes of Health awarded Burke the Maximizing Investigators' Research Award – a prestigious $1.7 million grant that will support multiple projects focused on aging and infertility.

While at Oregon State, Burke has worked with 17 mentees, many of whom have gone on to have successful careers in science. One of her recent postdoctoral mentees is now in a tenure-track position in the College of Science at Oregon State.

Outstanding Faculty Research Assistant Award

Zhen Yu stands in a black shirt in front of a plain wall.

Zhen Yu received the Faculty Research Assistant Award for her impressive technical skills, willingness to learn and key mentorship. This award is given to an individual each year who has chosen a career as a faculty research assistant, senior faculty assistant or research associate and has a record of outstanding job performance and contributions.

Yu started as a faculty research assistant in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in 2012 and was promoted to senior faculty research assistant in 2019. She has been conducting basic research for over 20 years, making influential contributions to a broad range of projects from cancer chemoprevention, vaccine delivery, immunology, aging and most recently protein structure and function.

Joining Elisar Barbar’s laboratory at the start of the pandemic, Yu helped start new research on SARS-CoV2 nucleocapsid protein and viral RNA, an area new to herself and the lab.

“She single-handedly transformed my lab that has never touched RNA to a lab that studies the largest pieces of RNA ever reported,” Barbar wrote.

Her willingness to supervise and teach undergraduate students has positively impacted a large number of students each term.

“Yu is one of the most hardworking and patient mentors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” one student wrote. “She taught me numerous skills and has shown me how to persevere through challenges.”

Outside of research, Yu serves as the department unit safety contact, managing AED devices, autoclaves and department equipment maintenance. Part of this role includes responding to cold rooms and walk-in freezer over-temp alarms at all hours.