BioEngineering Day - A Day of Firsts

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Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience

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Chris Ruffin, the longtime academic advisor for the BioEngineering Graduate Program (BioE), died last summer, leaving behind a lot of friends who remember the positive spirit he brought to the job every day. That spirit was rekindled by the throng of students, faculty and staff at the first ever BioE Day (Monday, May 12), and it was felt keenly by Patricia Pacheco, who knew Ruffin well.

“He had 100-plus students to work with, but he treated all of us like we were individuals, really went above and beyond to make sure everything went smoothly for every student who came in,” says Pacheco, inaugural winner of the Chris Ruffin Graduate Leadership Award, announced at BioE Day.

Pacheco is a fifth year Ph.D. student in Todd Sulchek's lab, has a string of honors and awards behind her, including: an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Goizueta Foundation Fellowship, NIH-Georgia Tech Biomaterials Training Grant, and the Georgia Institute of Technology Presidential Fellowship.

She’s also been a busy participant in the Graduate Leadership Program, which gets to the heart of the Ruffin Award. Among other things, she’s served as Education and Outreach co-chair for the Bioengineering and Bioscience Unified Graduate Students (BBUGS), ambassador and interim vice president of the Georgia Tech Salsa Club, been a mentor to other students, and has been active on the Bioengineering Graduate Student Advisory Committee (BGSAC) and the Latino Organization of Graduate Students.

So basically, she does Ruffin’s legacy proud, according to Robert Butera, bioengineering professor and former program director for BioE (2005-2008), who says, “it’s totally appropriate to name a graduate student leadership award after Chris, because he wasn’t just a staff person, he was a leader. Running the BioE program is an important task, with a lot of moving parts, and it required him to interface with all the participating schools and their own rules and cultures. He made it look effortless and easy.”

The Ruffin Award, like BioE Day, was invented and defined by students in the BioE community. “They made the nominations, set the criteria,” says Butera, who was asked at the last minute to be the award presented, and notes that Pacheco “played a critical role in motivating other students and pitching in to volunteer and help lead student organizations.”

Andrés García, current BioE program director, was approached in the spring by students who wanted to create a special day focused on the BioE community, before anyone really was sure what shape it would take. Grad students Jessica Butts and Katie Hammersmith, the BioE co-chairs, originally figured on a program that would last a couple of hours, but as the idea developed, “we realized we had enough programming to make it a whole day,” says Hammersmith.

The morning began with rapid-fire presentations by students (Ph.D. student Jenna Wilson, from Todd McDevitt's lab and an NSF-IGERT Stem Cell Biomanufacturing Trainee and GAANN Fellow, won this award). The poster presentation contest was won by Ph.D. students Tom Bongiorno (Todd Sulchek's lab) and Lauren Priddy (Bob Guldberg's lab). Bongiorno, also an NSF-IGERT Stem Cell Biomanufacturing Trainee, also won the award for outstanding paper. Jonathan Newman (Steve Potter's lab), who earned his Ph.D. in 2013, won the outstanding thesis award. Julie Champion, an assistant professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a member of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences, was named outstanding advisor.

“Since it was the first year, we weren't sure what to expect for the turnout, but it ended up being very well attended. We are really looking forward to the event growing in future years,” Hammersmith says. “We were impressed with the attendance by programs outside of Petit Institute who came to inform students about the many opportunities to enrich their graduate education as well as the high-quality presentations by students.”

There was a cookout, there were games, the highlight being the faculty-student water balloon toss – the winners were assistant professor J. Brandon Dixon and grad student Josh Hooks, i.e., they were the last team standing (dry). But a major unifying theme to the first BioE Day had to be the Ruffin Award

“I knew Chris, knew him really well, and what kind a person he was,” Pacheco says. “So, I’m very honored.”

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