The Virginia Tech College of Science will present the inaugural Robert E. Benoit Distinguished Lectureship in Biological Sciences on Wednesday, April 12, at the Holtzman Alumni Center's Assembly Hall.

Steven Wilhelm, the Kenneth and Blaire Mossman Professor of Microbiology at the University of Tennessee, will give the talk titled “Viruses and Cyanobacteria in Fresh Waters: A Molecular Biologist’s Tales.” The lecture begins at 3:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Attendees are invited to stay for a reception after the talk. Registration is encouraged.

A member of the Department of Microbiology, Wilhelm’s research group “studies synergies between microbial communities and biogeochemical cycles in lakes and oceans using biomolecular tools — DNA and RNA sequencing, metabolomics, and PCR-based quantitative analyses — to study viruses, bacteria, cyanobacteria and algae,” according to the lab’s website.

Describing the talk, Wilhelm said, in part, “Healthy fresh waters rely on the millions of microbes found in every drop. Understanding events that lead us to consider these waters ‘unhealthy,’ like toxic cyanobacterial blooms, requires a focus on not just the organisms causing the problem, but also on all the other microbes in the system. … From the perspective of understanding how we might best deal with harmful freshwater blooms in the future, the presentation will [offer] new insight into the interactions between ecology and physiology of viruses and bacteria and the implications of a changing climate.”

The Robert E. Benoit Distinguished Lectureship in Biological Sciences was established by members of the Lambda Chi Alpha Alumni Chapter at Virginia Tech, which includes alumni from both Sigma Omega Tau and Lambda Chi Alpha fraternities, in memory of their former advisor, Robert E. Benoit, associate professor emeritus of biological sciences at Virginia Tech who died in 2020 at the age of 86.

A blading man with salt and pepper hair poses for a photo inside a lab, his arms folded into each other.
Steven Wilhelm. Photo courtesy of Steven Wilhelm and the University of Tennessee.

According to an in memoriam published by Virginia Tech, “Benoit joined the then Department of Biology between his master’s and doctoral degrees, in 1962. … He became one of the founding members of the department’s microbiology program, teaching thousands of students over his career. Even after his official retirement in 2002, he taught classes in biomedical ethics and general microbiology.”

The group of alumni said in a statement, “Honoring our longtime faculty advisor, mentor, teacher, and Arctic researcher, this endowment will permanently fund a noted teacher and researcher to annually present a topic of current interest and importance in biological sciences.”

Of the donors, Tyree “Woody” Kessler, a retired veterinarian, and Tim McDermott, who worked as a fundraiser in academia — including Virginia Tech — and nonprofit settings for decades, both consider Benoit a mentor. Kessler earned a earned a Bachelor of Science in 1974 and a Master of Science in 1977 in biological sciences under Benoit. McDermott came up with the initial idea of the lecture series.

McDermott said Benoit served as an advisor to more than 500 Hokies during the course of 40 years with the fraternity. “Dr. Benoit, ‘Doc’ to us, … took special interest in brothers with leadership positions knowing their impact on the wider membership. He made me a better chapter president,” McDermott said. “His quiet leadership by example enabled me to serve Lambda Chi as an undergraduate, inspired me to continue my fraternity service as an alumnus, and served as a lifelong example during my 40-year university fundraising career. I am forever grateful for his guidance, friendship, and support. Every fraternity members is a better person due to his presence.”

Kessler added that Benoit was “an inspiration to a lot of people.” In 1974, Benoit sent then master’s student Kessler, all of 22 and by himself, to the remote U.S. Army base Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site, the northern most point of North America. (The town of Barrow has since been renamed Utqiagvik.) His task: field biology collection. “He told me, ‘This is going to be a true test of Woody Kessler, and he was right.”

The trip required Kessler to land by plane in Fairbanks, Alaska, and then take a smaller plane to the remote U.S. Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. “It’s not an easy place to get to,” Kessler said.

His daily routine was to travel to an even further remote area, collect samples, then bring the samples back to the lab for examination. He spent, in all, four months in Alaska. “That was a very defining time in my life,” Kessler said, adding that he was buoyed by the trust that Benoit had in him to carry out the project.

Robert Cohen, professor and head of the Department of Biological Sciences, said, “This exciting new lecture series provides an opportunity for the Department of Biological Sciences and the broader university community to engage with and learn from some of the leading scientists throughout the world. Covering everything from molecules, genes and cells to organisms, populations, and ecosystems, these lectures promise to be stimulating and informative.”

McDermott and Kessler, along with several other donors, plan to attend the inaugural talk.

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