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By 

JOANNA CUMMINGS

May 24, 2021

UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) has awarded its college-wide academic awards to four students who have demonstrated excellence through scholarship, research and service. The awards recognize one undergraduate junior, one senior and two graduate students who have distinguished themselves through their achievements and character.

Alexander Kende Academic Merit Award: Eric Coughlin '22

Eric Coughlin, a microbiology and molecular genetics major with a minor in computer science, has been named the 2021 recipient of the Alexander Kende Academic Merit Award.

The Kende award is presented in memory of Alex Kende, an exceptional student who graduated with honors from the UVM Biological Science program in 2000. He had been accepted to the UVM College of Medicine before a serious illness claimed his life. In his honor, the award provides a scholarship to a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences junior with an interest in medicine or biomedical research and has demonstrated exemplary character traits, leadership and service to UVM and the local community.

Coughlin’s exceptional academic achievements, willingness to help others and demonstrated commitment to community service are what qualified him for the Kende award, and he has proven to be a high-achieving and engaged member of the UVM community on many different levels. Associate Professor of Biomedical Health Sciences and UVM Cancer Center Program Leader Seth Frietze stated, “I have no doubt that following graduation from CALS he will proceed to a top-notch graduate program in biomedical research and to a scientific career beyond. Indeed, this award will help his career and reward him for his continual engagement in scholarship. He is great example of the quality of students we have in our programs here at UVM.” 

As an undergraduate research assistant, Coughlin received a grant to continue working on molecular cancer research with Dr. Frietze and Ph.D. candidates Noelle Gillis and Princess Rodriguez. He is also in demand as a student teaching assistant in the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Department. Instructor Rebecca Guy, who teaches MMG104: Introduction to Recombinant DNA Technology said that Eric “is always on hand and willing to take time from his studies and his commitments to share his experiences and knowledge about molecular biology with students. He quietly and steadfastly supports all members of the teaching team and enhances their ability to deliver content to undergraduate students.”

The local community has also benefited greatly from Coughlin’s extracurricular activities as a volunteer for the American Diabetes Association since 2012, and president of the UVM Beekeeping Club.

“I am truly honored to receive the 2021 Alexander McMahon Kende Academic Merit Award,” said Coughlin. “I am looking forward to a great senior year filled with biomedical research in the Frietze Lab, TAing for the MMG Department, and leading the beekeeping club through a more in-person semester. This award will also motivate and aid me in pursuing my lifelong goal of receiving a Ph.D. when my undergraduate career comes to an end.”

Lawrence K. Forcier Outstanding Senior Award: Margit Burgess '21

Senior Margit Burgess has been named the 2021 Lawrence K. Forcier Outstanding Senior. Named in honor of Lawrence K. Forcier, former dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the award recognizes the accomplishments of one senior each year who has excelled academically and exhibited exemplary character traits and leadership abilities as a member of, and in service to, the UVM community.

Burgess studied community and economic development, with a focus on ecological economics, in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics (CDAE). She has made a lasting, positive impression on the professors and students within the department through her intelligence, hard work and commitment to making the world a better place. Alie Sarhanis, CDAE academic advisor and internship coordinator, nominated Burgess for the award because of her “excellent academic record, her service to the university as an undergraduate teaching assistant, the application of her major in the community through her involvement with Better (Not Bigger) Vermont, and her bright future in the field of Community Development and Applied Economics.” 

In his letter of recommendation for the award, CDAE Professor Joshua Farley said that during her freshman year, Burgess was warned about a CDAE course that had a reputation for being difficult, and some past students said she was sure to fail. Farley said her response was to work hard, which resulted in Burgess being one of the most engaged and intelligent students in the course. “She aced the class,” Farley stated. “Her exceptional performance attests to a fine analytical mind equally adept at synthesis.” Based on her performance, she was recruited as a teaching assistant for two CDAE courses.

A career in the field of ecological economics is certainly in Burgess’s future, and she is on a path to pursue a Ph.D. Professors in CDAE credit her drive, passion, curiosity and commitment to purpose as a student with high standards in character and an immense amount of promise. She is also committed to taking what she has learned and applying it outside of the university. As an intern for Better (Not Bigger) Vermont, her professionalism and stellar performance eventually lead to being appointment as the youngest and only female board member of this nonprofit organization.

After learning about the award, Burgess stated, “I am honored to receive the Lawrence K. Forcier Award and I would like to thank all of my wonderful professors that I have had during my time at UVM. This year has been incredibly difficult, and I am grateful for all of the support that I received from my family, friends, and UVM. I couldn't have made it through without my support system. Thank you!" 

Graduate Research Excellence Award: Lindsay Quella – M.S.; Brittany Verrico – Ph.D.

The Graduate Research Excellence Award was established in 2020 to recognize graduate students who have excelled in their research and scholarly accomplishments. This year, the award category expanded to include a master’s degree candidate and a doctoral candidate.

Lindsay Quella, Master’s Student Award

Quella is a master’s degree candidate in the CDAE Department researching factors associated with successful agritourism ventures on U.S. farms. She came to UVM with a strong background in Vermont agriculture and policy and demonstrated a real talent for applied community and agricultural development work, through her rigorous research and ability to synthesize information on complex topics.

“Lindsay has been an outstanding graduate research assistant for the USDA AFRI-sponsored project titled Critical Success Factors for Small and Medium-Sized Farms with Direct Sales and Agritourism. Her contributions have truly been invaluable from day one,“ stated CDAE Professor David Connor, who also serves as her thesis advisor. “Lindsay has been a great partner in this research, demonstrating great skill, professionalism and productivity. She had contributed to the literature as well as a series of outreach activities, including reports and webinars. She embodies the modern scholar within UVM’s land grant mission.”

Extension Professor and Natural Resources Specialist Lisa Chase serves as the chair of Quella’s thesis committee. She stated that “while Lindsay has demonstrated her commitment to outreach and practical applications of the research, I have been equally impressed by her eagerness to explore theoretical frameworks and master both qualitative and quantitative analysis. I appreciate her ability to connect and communicate with farmers participating in our study and interested in understanding the implications of the results.”

Quella’s calm and level-headedness under pressure has impressed her thesis committee and other graduate students in her department as well. CDAE Assistant Professor Travis Reynolds said that “she has also demonstrated an extraordinary ability to manage her time and conduct rigorous (and recently published) research on agritourism while also welcoming new additions to her growing family. Her commitment to work-life balance is simply admirable, and her high-quality scholarship and growth as a master’s student is an inspiration.”

Brittany Verrico, Ph.D. Student Award

The data collected from a 50-year history of long-term forest monitoring, begun by UVM researchers Hub Vogelmann and Tom Siccama on Camels Hump, were used to help test ideas that Brittany Verrico had at the beginning of her graduate research, while investigating the scale of climate adaptation in eastern red spruce (Picea rubens). Dr. Stephen Keller, associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology, saw her ideas as “the first phase of her intellectual growth at UVM, which culminated in 2017 with her petition to switch from our M.S. to Ph.D. program: a choice supported overwhelmingly by our faculty who voted unanimously in favor. It also earned her a competitive award from the American Genetics Association to present her research ideas at the 2016 AGA President’s Symposium on local adaptation at Asilomar, CA.”

Verrico’s ideas, which were a fusion of classic ecological studies, molecular genetics, and measurement of local adaptation to climate, became a research project of response to stressors caused by human activity such as air pollution and warming temperatures. She used sophisticated modeling techniques that for the first time quantified the impact of these stressors on forest diversity, and it resulted in her being the author of a research paper that was published in a leading journal.

In subsequent research, Verrico collaborated with John Butnor, U.S. Forest Service research plant physiologist, to study red spruce on Mount Mansfield by planting “common gardens” at three different elevations on the mountain. For this work, Verrico won the 2018 James W. Marvin Award in Science and Conservation to support her research. Butnor stated that Verrico is “revealing how the intersection of genetics and environment will determine how forest trees will respond to climate change.” 

In recommending Verrico for UVM’s graduate research award, Butnor said that “this difficult and groundbreaking work will inform conservation and restoration efforts by various stakeholders including the U.S. Forest Service, state forest and conservation agencies as well as private and NGO’s such as the Nature Conservancy. I am unaware of similar efforts to predict resilience and define the capacity of forest trees to tolerate and respond to climate change at the scale that Ms. Verrico is doing.”

“Receiving this award is an honor and a privilege. Learning how to address these objectives through a multi-disciplinary lens has been challenging but also very rewarding, and I appreciate all of my colleagues who have helped along the way. After graduation, I’d like to pursue a career in molecular ecology and forest genetics while also working to make science more accessible and to reduce the stigma of mental health challenges in academia. I cannot imagine a more fulfilling career than one filled with continuous learning about the natural world and working with the next generation of STEM professionals,” said Verrico.

Recipients of these four awards are determined by the CALS Academic Awards Committee, comprised of faculty throughout the College. Nominations for the 2022 award cycle will open in December 2021.

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