First ever Carolina Biosciences Alumni Reunion and Symposium held May 16 and 17

The Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program held its first reunion and symposium, bringing back alumni from the 14 BBSP PhD programs for a two-day event that featured speeches, poster sessions, seminars, and other festivities that connected faculty, students, and graduates.

First ever Carolina Biosciences Alumni Reunion and Symposium held May 16 and 17 click to enlarge Attendees of the 2013 Biosciences Alumni Reunion and Symposium
First ever Carolina Biosciences Alumni Reunion and Symposium held May 16 and 17 click to enlarge Dr. William Goldman, center, with attendees of the 2013 Biosciences Alumni Reunion and Symposium

The first ever Carolina Biosciences Alumni Reunion and Symposium, sponsored by the Office of Graduate Education (OGE), was held on May 16 and 17. Alumni from all 14 Biological and Biomedical Sciences PhD programs participated in the two-day event.

Thursday’s festivities featured program-specific events, including alumni reunions, seminars, poster sessions, receptions, and speeches by alums. Friday’s festivities featured speeches by six alumni who were honored with Distinguished Alumni Awards, the first time such awards were given out. A dinner was held at Morehead Planetarium on Friday evening.

The idea for the reunion and symposium was initially conceived as a celebration of the five-year anniversary of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program (BBSP). But as Virginia Miller, PhD, professor of genetics, microbiology and immunology, associate dean of graduate education, and organizer of the reunion and symposium noted, the event grew into something much larger.

“We soon realized there had never been a broad-scale reunion of alumni from these programs and felt it was a great opportunity to celebrate the importance of graduate research at Carolina and the distinction our PhD graduates have brought to UNC via their successes,” said Miller.

Other events included a networking breakfast for current students to meet alumni in various careers and a working lunch. The topic of the lunch was “Graduate Training in the 21st Century,” which brought together alumni, faculty, staff, and current students to discuss the changing landscape of graduate training in the biosciences.

Each program was free to create its own agenda for its Thursday event. The department of microbiology and immunology held a retreat that included 225 registrants, including 50 alumni from places all over the country; the group represented six decades of graduates. William Goldman, PhD, chair of the department of microbiology and immunology, was pleased with the turnout and the effectiveness of the event.

“The whole idea was for our current department to get a sense of the strong research heritage of Microbiology and Immunology at UNC,” Goldman said. “We want people to feel connected with the history of our department. This was the first time alums have returned to talk about work generated in our labs. It was very exciting for us.”

Jeff Sekelsky, PhD, director of the genetics and molecular biology program, organized a fiftieth-anniversary event at the Botanical Garden.

“It went very well,” said Sekelsky. “I got a lot of feedback. We had a slideshow for alums who couldn’t make it. Some wrote about what they’ve done since finishing the program. The response overall was quite good.”

Reaching students was an essential component of the reunion and symposium, especially as students see funding cuts to research during these difficult economic times.

“I talked to a lot of students, and they were excited about the meeting,” said Goldman. “Students worry about getting jobs, so it’s very useful to see successful people. It’s less tangible to them now, but it will be more tangible later—the alumni who came last week will be contacts for them in the future, and there is great value in having those connections.”

Those sentiments are felt across the 14 BBSP programs.

“Students who were there saw alumni doing lots of different things with their careers,” said Sekelsky. “It’s important for them to see how graduates got into their professions. I think we can do more of that moving forward.”

The Curriculum in Toxicology took a comprehensive approach in selecting alumni speakers. It held an event that featured graduate speakers from the 1980s, 1990s, 2000, and 2010, including Steven Belinsky, PhD, the program’s first graduate. Belinsky’s lung cancer research has received significant recognition.

Ilona Jaspers, PhD, curriculum director for the curriculum in toxicology PhD program, found that the two days were geared toward a broad audience of people with biomedical backgrounds. In addition to the toxicology reunion, which she helped coordinate, she found Friday’s discussion and speeches quite informative, and she’s looking forward to growing the connections her program made with alumni.

“We’ve had a lot of alumni stay in the area because of RTP,” Jaspers said. “I’m very excited about the ability and willingness of our alums to be part of the program. Many have stronger connections to UNC now, and they expressed real interest in alerting our students to job openings and even to coming back to lecture.”

The event also included a crowd favorite, the ceremony for the Art of Science Competition winners and honorable mentions, held at Ackland Art Museum. And on Saturday morning, the DNA Day 5k Race and Science Festival unofficially capped off the celebration. The race raised nearly $4,000 for science outreach efforts that the OGE is involved in and for engaging the local community, especially children, in science.

It’s safe to say that the weekend was a hit and that another BBSP symposium will be held.

“The reunion and symposium was an amazing opportunity for our current students to connect with alumni, providing them a chance to hear about many paths to success,” said Miller. “And of course it was a great opportunity for our alumni to reconnect with each other and with Carolina!”
Learn more about speakers and details of the event at the Carolina Biosciences Alumni Reunion website.

About the UNC School of Medicine’s Office of Graduate Education

The Office of Graduate Education (OGE) includes the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program (BBSP) – an admissions and first year training program for 14 PhD programs in the biosciences. Those 14 programs include cell and developmental biology, toxicology, neurobiology, molecular and cellular pathology, biochemistry and biophysics, bioinformatics and computational biology, microbiology and immunology, pharmacology, cell and molecular physiology, and genetics and molecular biology, all housed in the School of Medicine. The BBSP also includes programs for pharmaceutical sciences in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, chemistry and biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and oral biology in the School of Dentistry.

OGE also includes the Science, Training, and Diversity (STaD) group, which oversees diversity recruitment/retention, professional development, science outreach, and other training initiatives for PhD students in all BBSP member programs.

The Office of Graduate Education is led by Associate Dean Virginia Miller, PhD.