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CBS Alumni Awards

The College of Biological Sciences offers alumni awards in three categories. 

CBS Alumni Emerging Leader Award
CBS Alumni Achievement Award
CBS Alumni Service Award

Nominations for the 2023 alumni awards will open in the spring.


Past recipients

  • 2021

    Alumni Service Award: Josh Leonard
    As the Josh Leonardeducation director for the Belwin Outdoor Science program for St. Paul Public Schools, Joshua Leonard (B.S. Ecology, Evolution and Behavior ’00) leads outdoor biology education for 10,000 students each year. In addition to moving educational offerings online for thousands of students during the pandemic, he has also worked to decrease barriers to nature for Black, Indigenous and people of color around the Twin Cities, helped launch the Minnesota Phenology Network, and was integral in the creation of the Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom. “Connecting more kids to nature, more often is of utmost importance for all of us who want to live in a science literate democracy and live in a country where all kids can learn about and pursue their dreams,” Leonard says.

    Alumni Service Award: Geri Nelson
    A member of the inaugural CBS graduating classGeri Nelson, Geri Nelson (B.A. Biology ’68) went on to teach for 25 years as a high school science educator after completing her degree in biology. In addition to inspiring generations of students to study the sciences, Nelson’s work and service in science education and advocacy was recognized with the Hope Washburn Award by the League of Minnesota Voters, the RiverKeepers Award by the Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) organization, and the Distinguished Minnesotan Award by Bemidji State University. “Ms. Nelson has dedicated her life to service and volunteerism through her 25-year career as a high school science educator and through a lifetime of environmental and civic advocacy, engagement and volunteerism,” says her nominator “I simply cannot imagine a better candidate for the CBS Alumni Service Award than Geri Nelson.”

    Alumni Achievement Award: Zhanjiang (John) Liu
    John Liu (M.S. Plant Pathology ’85, John LiuPh.D. Genetics and Cell Biology ’89) received both the College’s Alumni Achievement Award and the University’s Outstanding Achievement Award this spring. He was recognized for numerous achievements, including pioneering work in fish genomics and exceptional accomplishments as a scholar, mentor to scores of graduate students and top administrator at two universities. Currently interim vice chancellor and provost at Syracuse University, Liu says he learned a lot of things as a graduate student at the U in the 1980s. But perhaps the most important lesson of all was what he calls the “Minnesota Spirit”—helping others succeed.

    Alumni Achievement Award: Darby Nelson
    After completing his bachelor’s, mastDarby Nelsoner’s and doctoral degrees at the College of Biological Sciences, Darby Nelson (B.A. Zoology ’64, M.S. Zoology ’66, Ph.D. Zoology ’70) went on to a distinguished teaching and public service career. Nelson taught environmental and biological science courses at Anoka-Ramsey Community College for 35 years and served three terms in the Minnesota House in the 1980s. He published For Love of Lakes in 2011 and For Love of a River: The Minnesota in 2019. “Dr. Nelson has been a titan in teaching and in advocacy for the conservation and the environment in Minnesota and has become a revered author of two significant books,” says his nominator. “Any one of these sets of activities would make him deserving of the Alumni Achievement Award, but the combination of all three buttresses my own pride in being a fellow alum of this scientist.”

    Emerging Leader Award: Mindi DePaola
    Mindi DePaola (B.S. Biology '15) serveMindi DePaolas as a program specialist for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and National Center for Atmospheric Research. She currently advises senior leadership on best practices relating to COVID-19. DePaola previously served in positions with the United Nations and International Medical Corps, and holds a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University. “This pandemic has been tough for all of us,” DePaola says. “I am grateful that through all the stress and uncertainty, I could play my small part in protecting the health and safety of folks I work with.”

    Emerging Leader Award: Sarah Knutie
    Sarah Knutie (B.S. Ecology, Evolution and Behavior ’06) is an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the UnivSarah Knutieersity of Connecticut, where she studies the impact of environmental change on diseases in wild animals. Dr. Knutie earned her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Utah in 2014 and recently developed a method of “self-fumigation” to manage a parasite problematic to the famous Darwin finches of the Galápagos. “I credit my success to the education and opportunities I received at the College of Biological Sciences,” says Knutie, “and I am forever indebted to the mentors who helped shape who I am as a professor at the University of Connecticut.

  • 2020

    Alumni Service Award: Mary Kemen
    Mary Kemen (B.S. Botany, ’78; B.S. Biochemistry, ’79;) has a lonMary Kemeng track record of serving communities as a physician both here at home and abroad. An anesthesiologist based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Kemen spent much of her professional life working in operating rooms in the Midwest since completing her medical degree from the University of Minnesota in 1984. 

    She’s also volunteered her time and expertise, most recently serving COVID-19 patients in a hospital in Long Island, New York. In addition, she spent time with Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan and Nigeria, caring for burn victims and malnourished children.

    The CBS alumna gives back to the University as well. A fourth-generation Gopher, Kemen is a member of the College’s Campaign Steering Committee and Conservatory & Botanical Collection advisory board. She supports both the Conservatory and the College’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve field station. 

    “I am truly humbled by the company I keep in the greater CBS family,” says Kemen. “If such recognition spurs others to leave their comfort zone and step into the fray for the greater good of our fellow human beings or the environment, then we will have passed an important torch. We can ignite the next generation of alumni who feel the need to give back in ways that push the envelope.”

    Alumni Achievement Award: Sarah Pallas
    After completing her undergraduate degree at the College of Biological Sciences, Sarah Pallas Sarah Pallas(B.S. Biology, ’77) went on to receive her Ph.D. from Cornell University and complete a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT. She served as an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine before accepting a position at Georgia State University where she advanced to full professor. After 22 years there, she moved to the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, where she studies developmental neuroscience with an eye to understanding how visual and auditory pathways in the brain develop. Among her research achievements, Pallas demonstrated that the auditory cortex can be rewired to process visual data. 

    In addition to her work in the lab, Pallas is a leader in the field of science education who developed coursework for undergraduate students designed to build their skills in analyzing scientific literature. She is an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow and recipient of the National Association of Biology Teachers Evolution Award. 

    “I am coming to the end of my career, having mentored and trained several students and postdocs who now have their own labs,” says Pallas. “My main focus now is improving the climate for young scientists from underrepresented groups.” 

    Emerging Leader Award: Priya Kamdar
    After completing her undergraduate Priya Kamdardegree at the College of Biological Sciences, Priya Kamdar (B.S. Biology, ’07) received her doctor of dental surgery (D.D.S.) degree from the University of Minnesota in 2011. In 2013, she joined the faculty of the University’s School of Dentistry, where she currently serves as a clinical associate professor. Kamdar’s research focuses on providing dental care for medically complex patients. 

    In addition to her research, Kamdar is a gifted educator and practitioner. She received the school’s Best Teaching Faculty award twice for her role in the classroom instructing students on how to treat medically complex patients and deal with medical emergencies in dentistry. She also practices dentistry at Boynton Health Services, where she was voted Best Dentist in Minnesota by her peers in 2018. Going forward, she plans to continue to teach and practice dentistry, as well as pursue research on how to best educate dental students to handle medical emergencies. 

    Her nominator says of Kamdar: “[Dr. Kamdar] serves as an exemplar of what a CBS alumnus is capable of achieving through forging her own path to serve others, teach the next generation, and perform research that brings together specialties and changes the field.”

  • 2019

    Alumni Achievement Award: Steve Jacobsen

    Steven Jacobsen (Ph.D. Plant Physiology, ‘93) is a world-renowned researcher in epigenetics, a field that focuses on gene eSteve Jacobsenxpression due to gene modification in lieu of changes to genes themselves. He studies the epigenetic modification of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Jacobsen is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

    Professional aspirations

    I hope that by the end of my career, gene silencing pathways in plants are understood at a deep level. I also hope that my former postdocs and students continue on in fruitful science careers, are happy, and impart their love of science on future generations of students. Finally, I hope that our understanding of DNA methylation and gene silencing pathways leads to tools that are used in plant breeding and crop improvement.

    Point of pride

    My record in training postdocs and placing them in academic positions. 

    Best memory from your time in CBS?

    The thrill of joining Neil Olszewski’s lab, and feeling like I had the chance to really learn how to do basic research.

    Emerging Leader Award: Sarah Weatherman

    Sarah Weatherman served as a post-baccalaureate fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases where she helped develop a vaccine for the Nipah virus. She is currently pursuing her Master of Healthcare Administration and MBA degrees at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and volunteers for the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic in south Minneapolis.

    Professional aspirations
    “I’m a big believer in “think global, act local,” and my goal is to have a career that I can look back on and feel that I got up every morning and contributed to the world around me. I am personally passionate that healthcare is a right, not a privilege, and I hope I can continue to advance that idea through working with healthcare systems.”

    Point of pride 
    My winding journey to get to where I am today! ... There is no one right path and I’m proud to say my path has been unique and successful.

    Best memory from your time in CBS?
    Upper-level microbiology labs and courses. I met some of my best friends in those courses. I’m even going to be maid of honor at my Microbial Physiology and Diversity Lab partner’s wedding!

  • 2018

    Alumni Achievement Award: Robert Desnick
    Dr. Robert Desnick completed his undergraduaRobert Dresnickte, Ph.D. and M.D. degrees at the University of Minnesota, and was a CBS faculty member in the Department of then-named Genetics and Cell Biology until 1977. Since then, he has been a faculty member at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine where he is now the Dean for Genetics and Genomics Medicine and Professor and Chair Emeritus of the Department of Genetics and Genomics Sciences. Desnick’s research explores medical genetics and genomics, particularly aiming to understand and find ways to treat rare genetic diseases. One of his main focuses is on lysosomal storage diseases and finding therapies from individuals dealing with these genetic disorders. He is board certified in molecular and biochemical genetics and is certified by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

    Alumni Achievement Award: Angela Trepanier
    Angela Trepanier earned her mAngela Trepanieraster’s degree in genetic counseling from the University of Minnesota in 1994. She is currently an associate professor of Molecular Medicine and Genetics, as well as the director of the Genetic Counseling masters program at Wayne State University. Her research focuses on developing and evaluating approaches for educating both medical providers as well as the public on issues relating to genomics and genetic counseling. Trepanier has been recognized for her work in genetic counseling and education with the Strategic Leadership Award from the National Society of Genetic Counselors, as well as the Wayne State University President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

    Emerging Leader award: Kimberly VanderWaal
    Dr. Kimberly VanderWaal graduated from CBS Kimberly VanderWaalwith an EEB degree in 2007, spending a portion of her undergraduate career studying under lion researcher Craig Packer in the lab and in the field in sub-Saharan Africa. After completing her degree in CBS, she went on to complete her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis, where she studied disease spread among cattle and wild ruminants in Kenya. Her work in this area earned her the Elton Prize runner-up for best paper by an early career author from the Journal of Animal Ecology. VanderWaal is now an assistant professor at the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of disease spread among animals and ways to model that behavior for further understanding and disease prevention.

  • 2016

    Alumni Achievement Award: Kip Thacker
    Kip Thacker earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in microbiology at the U of M, completing his Ph.D. in 1984. He currently serves as the Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President of Lifecore Biomedical, a medical product developer and manufacturer based in Chaska, Minnesota. Kip holds five patents and is the co-inventor of the Lifecore hyaluornan fermentation and manufacturing process.

    He and his colleagues at Lifecore Biomedical produce medical products for ophthalmic, orthopedic and veterinary markets all over the world. These materials are used for treating knee pain for patients with osteoarthritis, use as a surgical aid in numerous procedures performed on the eye and to coat the bladder lining to treat interstitial cystitis.

    Emerging Leader Award: Aliredha Walji
    After graduating from CBS, Aliredha Walji served with AmeriCorps, then went on to earn his MBA from Crown College. He worked in the mortgage industry prior to joining ShariaPortfolio, an asset management firm, where he now serves as an investment advisor representative.

    In addition to his career accomplishments, Walji serves as the president of the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals and volunteers with the United Muslim Foundation. He also worked with local leaders and helped crowdfund support for victims of the Orlando shooting at the Pulse NIghtclub.