Three graduate students - Kylie Ryan Kaler, Sarah Shawver and Kisha Pradhan - received the 2021 John Johnson Awards for their excellence in the field of microbiology.

The awards are supported by an endowment in the name of John L. Johnson, a former professor in the Department of Anaerobic Microbiology and a pioneer in the field of microbial diversity and microbiome research, who passed away in 1996.

“John was a truly exceptional colleague that cared very deeply for students. In spite of his debilitating condition he continued to work with and mentor students even up to the last week of his life. He is an exemplar of the best combination of scientist and educator and it is indeed a high honor for students to receive recognition in his name,” said Dennis Dean, University Distinguished Professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and founding director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech.

As part of the award, the recipients will receive a plaque and a $1,000 award to be spent at their discretion for further research or travel to prestigious conferences and meetings. Recipients will also be recognized at a reception hosted by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute in their honor.

John Johnson came to Virginia Tech from his post-doctoral studies at the University of Washington-Seattle in 1968. With support from Walter Edward C. Moore, who was then the head of the Anaerobe Laboratory at Virginia Tech, Johnson studied bacteria that thrive in the absence of air, such as in the intestinal tract. 

His research makes it possible for doctors to quickly identify bacteria that cause microbial infections or diseases and expedite the treatment of seriously ill patients. The techniques and procedures he developed are used internationally to compare the DNA of one bacterium with that of another bacterium. His work in the areas of the DNA relatedness of bacteria was carried out at Moore’s Anaerobe Laboratory and the Fralin Biotechnology Center, the predecessor to the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. 

Johnson received the Bergey's Manual Trust Award in 1980, one of the most prestigious international awards in the field, for his outstanding contribution to bacterial taxonomy. 

The Pasteur Institute of Paris named a bacterium species after Johnson, Acinetobacter johnsonii. The honor was a sign of exceptional respect and an indication of his international stature in the field of microbiology. Then, Moore and his scientific partner Lillian V.H. Moore, named a bacterial genus for Johnson, which is called Johnsonella.

In addition to being an internationally recognized researcher, Johnson was considered an excellent teacher, especially for graduate students and advanced undergraduate students.

From left to right: Kisha Pradhan, Sarah Shawver, and Kylie Ryan Kaler.
From left to right: Kisha Pradhan, Sarah Shawver, and Kylie Ryan Kaler.

Kylie Ryan Kaler is a sixth-year doctoral student in the laboratory of Florian Schubot, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science. The lab combines approaches from microbiology and structural biology to gain insights into the molecular signaling mechanisms that control the bacterium’s ability to damage a host.

One of Kaler’s biggest accomplishments was her ability to crystallize a two-protein complex, which revealed a never-before-seen link between two signaling histidine kinases - a class of enzymes which play a role in sending out signals across the membrane of cells. She followed-up that work with a detailed analysis to confirm the biological significance of her structural studies and gain additional insights into the evolution of this novel interaction. Her work was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in October.

“Overall, I am tremendously proud of her accomplishments and think she is very deserving of this award,” said Schubot. “She took on a hugely difficult project and through dedication and great persistence succeeded at making truly remarkable discoveries.”

Kisha Pradhan has been working in the laboratory of Liwu Li, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, for the past five years. 

Pradhan recently completed a study on the dynamics of innate immunological memory, or our immune system's ability to "remember" prior infections, and its function in acute and chronic inflammatory disorders. When the monocytes are activated with a small stimulus, for example a bacterial toxin, they get "primed" or become more "alert," retain this state and exhibit enhanced inflammatory response upon a second exposure to pathogens. Primed monocytes are linked to the pathogenesis of cardiovascular diseases, but the molecular pathways responsible for the creation of low-grade inflammatory monocytes are unknown.

After studying the behaviors of monocytes exposed to low-grade inflammatory stimuli, Pradhan uncovered a crucial innate signaling circuit that is responsible for sustaining inflammatory markers that can regule low-grade inflammation. The study, which was just published in the Journal of Immunology, the flagship journal for the American Association of Immunologists.

“I fully anticipate that Kisha will develop into a world class scientist with huge potential in advancing the field of innate immune memory related to the pathogenesis of sepsis and cardiovascular complications,” said Li.

Sarah Shawver is in her final year as a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Brian Badgley, an associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Shawver has been working at the interface of soil microbiome research, antibiotic resistance, and ecosystem science.

Shawver has taken a unique, system-level perspective to focus on the interactions that occur within soil science, agroecosystem management, and the soil microbiome. She has broadened the thinking on antibiotic resistance genes to include effects of the environmental conditions. Through her research, she has shown that antibiotic resistance in soil microbial communities has physiological impacts that are both affected by and can alter broader functions of soil ecosystems.

“In addition to her research, she has served as an assistant coach on the VT undergraduate soil judging competition and as a teaching assistant when not required because of her interest in teaching,” said Brian Badgley, an associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “She was instrumental in altering the 2021 Environmental Microbiology lab sections to operate successfully during COVID-19.”

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