14 faculty and alumni honored in Faculty-Alumni Awards Ceremony

Recipients included a biologist advancing knowledge of genetics with research into corn and fruit flies and a hospice researcher with a personal connection to her work.

During its 51st annual Faculty-Alumni Awards Ceremony on Friday in the Reynolds Alumni Center, the Alumni Association recognized 14 alumni and faculty members for their contributions in research, teaching and service.

Among the 14 recipients, two special distinctions were awarded. Catherine Allen received the 63rd Distinguished Service Award, and James Birchler received the 59th Distinguished Faculty Award.

Allen, the chairwoman and CEO of The Santa Fe Group, has varied experience in the field of financial services. The group offers expert advising regarding areas such as technology and cybersecurity to a variety of institutions such as law firms and health care providers, according to its website.

Birchler, a curators’ distinguished professor of biological sciences, has conducted research in genetics by using corn and fruit flies in order to find out more about topics such as centromeres, chromosomal dosage and the creation of synthetic chromosomes.

“We are involved in making artificial chromosomes, so we basically make them from scratch the way we want to rather than relying on what Mother Nature serves up,” Birchler said. “This allows us to ask what are the characteristics of a chromosome that allow it to work.”

This work can have a range of potential uses in genetic research.

“It also potentially has some biotechnological applications where we could put onto a separate chromosome various biochemical pathways for useful metabolites or resistances to insects, viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc.,” Birchler said.

Working with these “model organisms” allows for research that can’t be done on humans, but that can still apply to human genetics, he said.

“You use model organisms because they have a lot of tools that are available, and you can do a lot of manipulations in corn and fruit flies that you can’t do in humans,” Birchler said. “You can’t make controlled matings in humans. With fruit flies, the generation time is about 11 days, so you can get data really quickly. Once you understand the principles of a scientific problem, then they can be picked up and applied to our understanding of various aspects of human biology.”

During Friday’s ceremony, Birchler gave a presentation called “What My Students Have Taught Me.”

“The first part of it was funny answers to test questions that I’ve accumulated over the years,” Birchler said. “I keep a second file of notes from students that I started over 20 years ago that has a few hundred notes from students. In the latter part, I reflected upon what I’ve learned from those notes. I’ve learned that students are ambitious, they care about helping others, they’re interested in exploring the world and they are grateful for the help they have received along the way.”

Birchler appreciates the component of the award that recognizes interaction with students, since he makes a special effort to acquaint himself with his own.

“When I went to college, I went to a university where there were only 35 students per class, so I knew all of my professors and they all knew me,” Birchler said. “They encouraged me to go on to graduate school and offered to write letters of recommendation. I’ve always been grateful for that encouragement, and so I’m interested in passing that along to my students.”

Outside of Allen and Birchler, six other alumni and six other faculty members received awards.

The awarded alumni include Glenn Blumhorst, president and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association; Jim Fitterling, CEO of The Dow Chemical Company and the chief operating officer of the Materials Science Division of DowDuPont; Elsa Hennings, senior systems engineer of the Naval Air Warfare Center; Bobbette Ranney, retired physician and clinical professor of pediatrics; E. Richard Webber, senior U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Missouri and Bruce Whittle, veterinarian at the Honey Creek Veterinary Hospital.

The awarded faculty include Lori Eggert, professor of biological sciences and director of graduate studies in the division of biological sciences; Anne-Marie Foley, the founder and director of the MU Office of Service-Learning; Rafael Gely, James E. Campbell Missouri Endowed professor of law and the director of the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution; Sandy Rikoon, the dean of the College of Human Environmental Sciences, a curators' distinguished teaching professor of rural sociology and the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security; Stacey Woelfel, a professor of radio-television journalism and the director of the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism and Debra Parker Oliver, Paul Revere Family professor of family and community medicine.

Parker Oliver has been researching hospice care for over 20 years.

“For every dying person, there is someone at home trying to take care of them,” Parker Oliver said. “The science shows us that this is incredibly burdensome. In fact, anywhere from 25 to 30 percent will be anxiously to moderately depressed. My research develops and tests interventions or programs that improve that caregiving experience and target depression and anxiety specifically.”

Her research in the area took a more personal turn when her husband, David Oliver, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2011.

“I knew in my head the dangers and the challenges of caregiving, but I didn’t know the feeling,” Parker Oliver said. “When David was diagnosed and I took care of him for 42 months, I suddenly had the personal experience and feelings that went along with that. And so, it has increased my passion all the more for what I was already doing.”

Oliver and Parker Oliver shared their story in a variety of ways. The two made a series called “Depriving Death of Its Strangeness” on their YouTube channel, spoke all over the country and even went on CBS This Morning.

Though Oliver died in March 2015, Parker Oliver continues to share their experience and the lessons they have learned. In January 2019, she will release her memoir, “Legacies from the Living Room: A Love-Grief Equation.”

“At the end, what I learned is something David called the love-grief equation, which means the more you love, the more you grieve,” Parker Oliver said. “The answer to comforting that grief is to remember the love and be grateful for that, because the grief is just a symptom of how much love that you had.”

Gely, another faculty member, was awarded due to his nationally recognized research into labor law and employment law.

“I basically study the legal issues to the regulation of labor markets, particularly in the context of workplaces where employees are represented by a labor organization,” Gely said. “So, I have written about the process of organizing unions, the legal constraints and protections that are provided to employees who seek to organize in the form of a union, the obligations that are imposed on the employer and the limits on what the employer can do to prevent the employees from organizing collectively.”

Since Gely has been at MU for only 10 years, he felt welcomed and acknowledged with the award.

“I have not been here that long compared to some of the other faculty recipients, so I think it’s meaningful to know that one has been welcomed by the community and appreciated,” Gely said. “With the effort that one puts in his job on a daily basis not expecting to be recognized, it’s nice to know that people have noticed.”

Gely appreciates the Alumni Association’s work in organizing the ceremony.

“It’s not often that one is the center of attention,” Gely said. “At an event like that, the Alumni Association certainly makes you feel welcome. The care with which they do that, it speaks highly to their ability to reach out and make alumni and others feel part of the university community. My sense is that if they make other people feel the way they made me feel, they are certainly doing a good job in making the university a welcoming place.”

Parker Oliver noticed the effort that the Alumni Association put into the event as well.

“The Alumni Association goes all out,” Parker Oliver said. “It was spectacular. We were very busy with receptions and meet and greets. I had family that came in from all over the country. My family was so excited and so happy to be a part of it. We had a magnificent dinner. I got to meet amazing people. The other recipients just really make you feel quite humble in all of their accomplishments.”

Edited by Morgan Smith | mosmith@themaneater.com

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