Though Leah Hamilton remembers hours in the lab and the journey of discovery, there is one moment as a Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate that sticks in her memory above all others.

In the midst of one of the busiest months of data collection during Hamilton’s first year, Paulette Cairns, a fellow food science and technology graduate student, made a key lime pie for Hamilton’s birthday.

“I was overwhelmed by the support I got from my fellow graduate students,” Hamilton said, who is from Raleigh, North Carolina. “My first year was a whirlwind. I was getting used to a new lab, a new area of research, and I had just moved to a new state where I didn’t know anyone. I would not have been able to finish that study without all their support.”

Now, four years later, Hamilton is being honored as the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Outstanding Ph.D. Student. She was as surprised to be recognized as when they gave her a birthday party.

“I was just coming upstairs from a long day in the lab and I was a little bit brain-fried. So when my advisor, Jacob Lahne, and Joell Eifert, another faculty member in the department, were standing near my desk chatting and asked me if I'd checked my email, I was nervous,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “I am honored to have been selected out of all the fantastic Ph.D. students I know in the college and am incredibly grateful to everyone who helped along the way.”

Hamilton’s research area is food sensory science with Lahne, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology. Food sensory science is a combination of math, culinary, and food studies expertise as well as food science.

“I like working with people, I like how approachable and easy this research is to talk about as well as how it brings together statistics and food and language. I also love how you can set up a sensory lab in any breakroom,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s mastery of data analytics to conduct and analyze sensory-science studies is among her most impressive qualities, Lahne said.

“Not only has she mastered the standard analytical tools that the discipline requires, but she has confidently and rigorously developed new methods and approaches to integrate traditional and machine-learning sides of her research program,” Lahne said. “Ms. Hamilton is clearly poised to be one of the leading early-career researchers in sensory science and to make key, novel contributions to our understanding of the human senses and their role in food-product design, appetite, and eating behavior.”

Funding for Hamilton’s time at Virginia Tech came from the CALS Graduate Teaching Scholars Program and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology SEAD grants. Hamilton received travel scholarships from the Sensometrics Society, the Pangborn Symposium, and the Virginia Tech Graduate School during her time at Virginia Tech.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences recognized entomologist Aryanna James as its Outstanding Master’s Student.

“I have been interested in studying insects before I could even fathom a career path, and I came to Virginia Tech because of their prominent entomology department,” James said. “I took about two years off from school to intern at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. I realized then that I wanted to pursue my passion for insects and research at Virginia Tech.”

As the current Grayson Awardee for the Outstanding Masters Student in Entomology, James represents the best of an outstanding group of graduate students in the department and epitomizes the Virginia Tech service-focused student.

During her time in the Department of Entomology, she took a leading role in departmental outreach, teaching, and research in collaboration with Virginia Tech faculty and one U.S. Environmental Protection Agency biologist. She distinguished herself through her approach to teaching and scientific questioning.

“I chose to work with stream studies because of my initial exposure to stream research during my undergraduate program,” James said. “I worked with a graduate student who was studying the efficacy of mitigative liming in acidified Appalachian streams in Pennsylvania. Our freshwaters are so vulnerable, yet so important. For so many reasons that I can't help but feel passionate about them.”

She participated in a significant list of service activities including intensive efforts, working with K-12 students visiting campus and efforts on Hokie BugFest, as well as more extensive service and professional commitments with water groups on campus. She also served as an officer in entomology’s Alwood Society as well as the multidisciplinary Stream Team.

Funding for James came primarily from Sally Entrekin’s research start-up funds, her advisor and an associate professor of aquatic entomology, and from the Fralin Life Science Institute in support of the Global System Sciences Area at Virginia Tech. She also received a teaching assistantship in Freshwater Biomonitoring.

“Ms. James became a natural leader among our very impressive group of graduate students, which was a challenging feat as we were all hit by the pandemic,” said Tim Kring, the head of the Department of Entomology. “I have witnessed Aryanna encourage participation among her peers in a way that is inclusive without being threatening or guilt-driven.”

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