The Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics’s faculty, students and staff have been solving life’s fundamental challenges for the past 75 years.

Graphic: Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, 75 years, Texas A&M University, 1947-2022

The department’s collaborative research has helped control human and animal diseases, produce viral-resistant crops and improve environmental cleanups. The educational opportunities prepare students for numerous career paths in the life sciences, including graduate school, medical and other professional schools, and careers in biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

Founded in 1947, the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics now teaches more than 5,000 students each year in its biochemistry, biophysics and genetics courses. Thirty tenured or tenure-track faculty as well as nine academic professional track, one research-track and nine joint faculty members are part of the department, with research expenditures of more than $11 million.

To honor past successes and look to the future, hundreds of current and former students, faculty and staff flocked to College Station recently to officially celebrate the 75th anniversary.

Celebrating the 75th anniversary together

At the anniversary celebration, attendees heard about a new endowed lecture series, participated in student awards and presented a tribute to an absent faculty member. Speakers and a student poster session featured the gamut of departmental work, with applications in medicine, agriculture and environmental health.

A man, Josh Wand , stands behind a podium
Josh Wand, Ph.D., distinguished professor and biochemistry and biophysics department head, at the 75th-anniversary event. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Alex Emery)

“In dealing with the molecular basis of life, biochemistry and biophysics underlie everything we do at Texas A&M AgriLife,” said Jeffrey W. Savell, Ph.D., vice chancellor and dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences, in the event’s opening remarks. “For 75 years this department has moved science forward to improve the health and well-being of the world in which we live. I know the next 75 years will be just as bright for this department.”

Joshua Wand, Ph.D., University Distinguished Professor and biochemistry and biophysics department head, highlighted the prominent core facilities for research and teaching, including a top-of-the-line cryo-electron-microscopy resource that will be taking reservations this fall.

“It’s an honor to work with our esteemed faculty,” Wand said. “We have some true rock stars in many areas of the life sciences.”  

Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics endows seminar series

Some of the “rock stars” in the department are now featured on commemorative plaques in the Biochemistry and Biophysics Building.

Among them is Ryland Young, Ph.D., who retired on Aug. 31 as director of the Center for Phage Technology, University Distinguished Professor, Regents Professor and Sadie Hatfield Professor of Agriculture. He now continues to direct his lab as professor emeritus.

The Ryland F. Young III, Lecture in Biochemistry Endowment, announced on Aug. 18, acknowledges Young’s more than 40 years of service as an imaginative and impactful leader of research and education.

Also highlighted at the anniversary celebration was the Greg Reinhart Biophysics Lectureship. The endowed series honors Greg Reinhart, Ph.D., who served as head of the department in 2000-2018, prior to retiring. His tenure was marked by enhanced research efforts and recruitment of new faculty at the department. Reinhart’s own acclaimed research focused on the molecular basis of enzyme regulation.

Celebration features visits from acclaimed former faculty, students

Among those who traveled to College Station in August was Martyn Gunn, Ph.D., professor emeritus, who now resides in California. Gunn served as interim department head in 1991 and 1993 and as associate head for many years. He played a significant impact on the growth of the undergraduate program by offering study abroad opportunities.

Martyn Gunn speaking at the 75th anniversary celebration
Martyn Gunn, Ph.D., spoke at the biochemistry and biophysics department 75th-anniversary event. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Alex Emery)

Reinhart also traveled to the celebration, from Wisconsin, to visit with former students and colleagues and speak.

“I have confidence in the future and the people of the department,” Reinhart said. “My advice is to pay attention to time. I encourage people to think about planning their time in a strategic and tactical manner.”

He urges scientists to make time for experiences that push them to think in unconventional ways: “The best scientific ideas come when you allow your mind to wander, when occupied in another fruitful endeavor.”

Having attended the department’s 50th anniversary celebration at the beginning of his Texas A&M career and now the 75th anniversary in retirement, “I hope, although it’s unlikely, to be there for the 100th,” he said.

Department honors Jim Hu’s memory

The event gave the department a chance to mourn James “Jim” Hu, Ph.D., a beloved faculty member who died suddenly in January 2020, when the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic precluded a departmental memorial ceremony.

Gwen Knapp behind the podium
Gwen Knapp, Ph.D., gives a presentation during the memorial tribute to Jim Hu, Ph.D. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Alex Emery)

After Hu’s death, his family established the Dr. James C. Hu Memorial Graduate Travel Excellence Award for biochemistry and biophysics students at Texas A&M. The award covers all major expenses of traveling to a high-impact national or international conference, up to $4,000. Applicants must be doctoral candidates in good standing and must present a poster or talk at the conference. In 2021, the inaugural award was given to Tingfeng Guo, a student in the lab of Jennifer Herman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department.

During the anniversary celebration, Hu’s students and colleagues shared memories in an emotional tribute. The tribute included the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate Hu and the travel award in his name. The plaque will be mounted near the main entrance of the Biochemistry and Biophysics Building.

“Jim was always willing to help, whether to help you understand something or just to talk about science,” said Gwen Knapp, Ph.D., Hu’s former student and assistant professor of biology at Illinois College, Jacksonville.

Through mentorship and teaching, Hu’s “training made us look at science from all aspects and critically evaluate things,” Knapp said, adding that she tries to teach the same mindset to her students. “It sets people up for success in life and helps them find where they’re meant to be in this world.”

Biochemistry and biophysics students win awards, connections

Weimin Tan speaking about her poster presentation
Biochemistry doctoral candidiate Weimin Tan discusses her research at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics 75th anniversary celebration. Her poster was titled, “The role of conformational entropy in antigen binding by a single chain antibody fragment.” (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Robin Williams)

The event featured a student poster session, student awards and talks by former students.

The Prescott Travel Award, which provides up to $4,000 in travel funds, was awarded to Jiyun Zhu from the lab of Thomas Meek, Ph.D., a professor in the department.

The student poster session had three winners:

  • Glorise Torres Montalvo, a student from Wand’s lab, won first place and $200.
  • Kayla Glockzin, a student from Meek’s lab, won second place and $150.
  • Joshua Meehan, a student of the lab of Jorge Cruz-Reyes, Ph.D., a professor in the department, won third place and $100.

Current students got a chance to meet their predecessors and forge connections.

Former student Lauren Cornell, Ph.D., working in the lab.
Former student Lauren Cornell, Ph.D., during her time in the Texas A&M Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Cornell.)

Among those celebrating the anniversary was Lauren Cornell, Ph.D., a former student who graduated with a bachelor’s in genetics in 2009. She also earned a master’s in biomedical engineering and a doctorate in translational science from collaborative programs within University of Texas System institutions.

She now works at the U.S. Air Force 59th Medical Wing, Lackland. She is also the CEO and co-founder of NovoThelium, a San Antonio-based biotechnology company developing nipple regeneration technology for breast cancer survivors.

“As an incoming freshman at Texas A&M, I did not know a lot of things,” Cornell told attendees. “One thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to be a research scientist. Obviously, that is exactly what I am doing today — and loving it.”

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