The Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges (VFIC) has recognized the accomplishments of three faculty members from the VFIC consortium of schools at the Annual Fall Luncheon & Harris Family Awards Presentation in Richmond, Virginia. Hampden-Sydney is proud to announce that among them is McGavacks Professor of Biology and Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research Michael Wolyniak.
The Harris awards were generously created through endowments by the Harris family to recognize faculty members “whose professional history reflects a strong, clear and abiding commitment to excellence in classroom teaching within the undergraduate liberal arts and sciences.” Dr. Wolyniak has been awarded the 2022 Libby and Hiter Harris Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award.
Dr. Wolyniak has been instrumental in building a vibrant and expansive undergraduate research program at H-SC—making research opportunities accessible and inclusive to students across all disciplines. His own teaching and research interests span the fundamentals of molecular biology and biochemistry and its intersection with public health. He strives to make the educational experience for his students as authentic and engaging as possible to prepare them for advanced coursework and real-world research opportunities.
“This award affirms the work that my colleagues and I have done to bring authentic scientific experiences into our classes at Hampden-Sydney. It has taken a significant amount of work to give our students the opportunities to think and act as ‘real scientists’ in our classes, but it is these experiences that allow them to be prepared for almost any opportunity that awaits them after graduation,” says Wolyniak.
With the goal of developing students who appreciate the scientific process and potentially gain a passion for it, Wolyniak embraces an active learning strategy of teaching that focuses on student engagement and collaboration. In classes that are blended with foundational lectures, discussions, and group activities, he hopes to not only retain students in the life sciences but also generate future scientific scholars and societal leaders.
At the introductory level, Wolyniak and his colleagues have designed semester-long research experiences divided into what they call bootcamps, where students acquire vital laboratory skills while working on long-term research projects. His upper-level Genomics and Bioinformatics (BIOL 313) students are continuing a decade-long affiliation with the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to annotate and characterize the full genomes of bacteriophages isolated at Hampden-Sydney and elsewhere. Since 2015, 37 Hampden-Sydney students have become co-authors on full bacteriophage genome annotations that are peer-reviewed and published in GenBank, the sequence repository of the National Library of Medicine.
In Molecular and Cellular Biology (BIOL 304), Wolyniak and students work locally with Three Roads Brewing in Farmville to develop yeast strains with optimal traits for brewing specific types of beers. In this project, students use bioinformatics to identify target genes for manipulation and propose an experimental procedure for the mutation and analysis of the target genes as it relates to brewing. By design, this program allows for all students, not just a select few, to receive the benefits of authentic scientific research as a part of their Hampden-Sydney educations.
On a grander scale, explains Wolyniak, his teaching philosophy has led him “to work with groups like the VFIC to build collaborative teaching ventures that give students the chance to work with their peers across disciplines and across institutions in a truly authentic form of modern science.” One such project is the “Heat Watch” initiative, a ten-institution joint undergraduate research project for better understanding and responding to the effects of heat islands across Virginia.
In 2020, he was instrumental in creating and hosting the inaugural Network for Undergraduate Research in Virginia (NURVa) Research and Creative Activity Conference, a meeting which strives to be the Commonwealth’s equivalent to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR). And when the pandemic threw a curveball at Hampden-Sydney’s summer research program, Wolyniak with his colleagues showcased their resilience by pivoting quickly and providing a meaningful virtual research experience for Hampden-Sydney students.
Wolyniak also received the 2021 Virginia Junior Academy of Science-Franklin D. Kizer Distinguished Service Award, multiple grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support his work, and the Virginia Mathematics and Science Coalition's "Programs That Work" Award in both 2018 and 2020, which recognizes exemplary programs for which there is evidence of a positive impact on student or teacher learning. At Hampden-Sydney, he has received the 2012 Cabell Award for Excellence in Teaching, the 2013 John Peter Mettauer Award for Excellence in Research, and the 2017 Thomas Edward Crawley Award for service to the College and its ideals. But perhaps the most telling accolade was Dr. Wolyniak’s receipt of the 2019 Senior Class Award given to a member of the College’s faculty, administration, or staff who in the eyes of the Class members has contributed during their four years most significantly to the College, its students, and the community.
We congratulate Dr. Mike Wolyniak on this most recent prestigious recognition.