Exceptional Thesis Award 2014

By Adityarup Chakravorty, CMB Graduate Student
Rob Ihry and Saheed Imam headshots
Left: Rob Ihry; Right: Saheed Imam

How does a single hormone influence multiple processes during biological development? What new nuggets of knowledge could we glean if we took a holistic, systems-wide approach to microbiology?

These were the respective ambitious questions Rob Ihry and Saheed Imam – both newly minted PhDs from the Cellular & Molecular Biology program at UW-Madison – had set out to answer through their graduate research.

Ihry and Imam have both won the inaugural CMB Exceptional Thesis Award. This annual award honors CMB graduate students who have written and defended outstanding theses. As part of the award, Ihry and Imam will each receive $250 and a plaque, and their names will be added to a plaque that will be housed in Bock Laboratories, the home of the CMB program on campus.

“Anyone who receives a PhD has already accomplished a significant amount,” says David Wassarman, Chair of the CMB graduate program. “We want to highlight some of the exceptional research being conducted in the CMB graduate program, and I think we have two truly excellent award winners this year in Rob and Saheed.”

Ihry was a graduate student with Arash Bashirullah, Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacy. His research focused on understanding how steroid hormones affect a wide variety of developmental processes with exquisite tissue and temporal specificity in the fruit fly. Ihry had to master a wide spectrum of techniques in graduate school and is grateful for the support and help he received from his colleagues and Bashirullah. “They all were critically involved with my projects and nothing would have taken off without them by my side,” he says.

Now working as a Post Doctoral Scholar at the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA, Ihry was delighted to win the Exceptional Thesis Award. “My whole life I have only been nominated for these [awards],” he says, “and to be recognized by such a well-ranked program and university is incredible.”

Imam’s graduate research, in the laboratory of Timothy Donohue, Professor in the Department of Bacteriology, involved creating and modeling a systems- level map of various metabolic and transcriptional processes in the bacterium Rhodobacter sphaeroides. His graduate research involved bringing together laboratory and computational expertise, and Imam thrived pursuing this interdisciplinary project. “I was given the freedom by Tim to chart my own course and develop my research,” says Imam, “ and I got to work with some great scientists in my lab and across the campus.”

Imam is now a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, WA and sees winning the Exceptional Thesis award as icing on the cake of a great graduate school experience. “There are a lot of talented graduate students in our program doing great research,” says Imam, “so to be singled out for an award really means a lot to me.”

Although Ihry and Imam pursued different scientific research, Wassarman was impressed by their ability to take ownership of their respective projects. “Both of them had tremendous work ethic and were dedicated to their research,” says Wassarman, “and they were true leaders in their research projects and drove both their research and the research of other people in their labs forward.”

Graduate students play a pivotal role in driving research forward at UW-Madison, and Wassarman hopes the CMB Exceptional Thesis Award can allow the program to highlight one or two cases of outstanding graduate research.  “I really want the community to see the great science that is being done here and what our graduate students can accomplish in their chosen fields,” he says.