Molecular geneticist and physiologist Joanna Chiu working in her lab
Molecular geneticist and physiologist Joanna Chiu joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology in 2010. Here she works in her lab shortly after her arrival. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Molecular Geneticist-Physiologist Joanna Chiu Wins PBESA 'Distinction in Student Mentoring' Award

Chiu, Professor and Chair of the Department, Praised as 'Mentor Extraordinaire'

Joanna Chiu, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Nematology
Joanna Chiu, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Nematology, is the recipient of the PBESA "Distinction in Student Mentoring" award.

Described as a “mentor extraordinaire,” molecular geneticist and physiologist Joanna Chiu, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. is the 2024 recipient of the Distinction in Student Mentoring Award from the Pacific Branch, Entomological Society of America (PBESA).

Professor Chiu will receive the award at the PBESA meeting, set April 14-17 in the city of Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii. PBESA encompasses 11 Western states, plus parts of Canada and Mexico, and U.S. territories.

Nematologist Steve Nadler, professor and former chair of the department, nominated her for the mentoring award. He praised her as “an incredible mentor, inspirational, dedicated and passionate about helping her students succeed, as exemplified by her receiving the 2022 UC Davis Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching and Mentoring Award for her contributions to graduate student and professional mentoring, and the 2023 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research

“Dr. Chiu is noted for providing her trainees, many of whom are from underrepresented groups, with very effective career and academic advising,” he wrote. “For example, many first-generation and underrepresented undergraduate trainees from her lab are now successfully enrolled in prestigious biological PhD programs, including programs at Stanford, Cornell, Columbia, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Davis, and UC San Francisco. Under her tutelage, her students are first authors of publications in prestigious journals. Even after her undergraduate and graduate students leave the university and settle into their careers, she continues to provide guidance and advice to them.”

Community ecologist Louie Yang, professor of entomology, interim vice chair of the department, and recipient of the 2023 Distinction in Student Mentoring Award, commented: "Joanna is an extraordinarily talented and committed mentor. She is remarkably good at helping students realize their potential. I’ve seen this over and over again with undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs."

In this 2016 file photo, molecular geneticist and physiologist Joanna Chiu, a co-founder and co-administrator of the UC Davis Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology, is circled by her students (from left) Rosanna Kwok, Katherine Murphy and Jessica West.
In this 2016 file photo, molecular geneticist and physiologist Joanna Chiu, a co-founder and co-administrator of the UC Davis Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology, is circled by her students (from left) Rosanna Kwok, Katherine Murphy and Jessica West. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Chiu, who joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology in 2010, co-founded and co-directs the campuswide UC Davis Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology (RSPIB), which she and two other UC Davis entomology faculty members  (UC Davis distinguished professor Jay Rosenheim and Yang) launched in 2011 to provide undergraduates with a closely mentored research experience in biology. The RSPIB scholars typically publish their undergraduate research, and many pursue careers in science.

Medical entomologist-geneticist Geoffrey Attardo, an associate professor in the entomology department, said one of his lab members, an  RSPIB alumna, was recently accepted into medical school. “The RSPIB program is an important resource and provides a valuable opportunity for undergraduates looking to perform research,” he said.

“Joanna is so generous of her time and advice,” shared UC Davis doctoral alumna Kelly Hamby, now an associate professor/Extension specialist in the Department of Entomology, University of Maryland. “Her office is always open to students, whether they are visiting high school students, undergraduates, graduate students, her own students, or someone else's. She carefully guides students throughout their experiments, directly providing technical training—side by side at the bench—while developing their critical thinking and communication skills. Joanna not only imparts excellent analytic and laboratory molecular skills to her students, but also commits to providing ongoing professional advice and development. Joanna's mentorship continues long after graduation and she leaves a lasting impression on students.” 

Christine Tabuloc working in the Chiu lab
Christine Tabuloc is now a postdoctoral researcher in the Chiu lab. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

“Throughout all my time in the Chiu lab, Joanna has never failed to amaze me with her kindness, patience, and her consistency and perseverance in helping all students, both in her lab and in other labs, succeed,” wrote Chiu lab alumna Christine Tabuloc, who received her doctorate in 2023 and is now a postdoctoral researcher in the Chiu lab. “What makes her so outstanding is her commitment to helping us improve as scientists and researchers and preparing us for our future career endeavors.”

'Pure Joy in the Pursuit of Knowledge'

Chiu lab alumna Katie Freitas of Stanford wrote: “Beyond teaching me practical research skills, Dr. Chiu helped to spark the most important thing a person needs to be a successful scientist: pure joy in the pursuit of knowledge.”

In her drive to help students succeed, Chiu directs the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program at UC Davis, PREP@UCD, funded by the National Institutes of Health and designed to prepare postbaccalaureate scholars from disadvantaged backgrounds and historically marginalized groups to succeed in PhD programs in the biomedical sciences. Five students were recruited to the PREP class of 2022-23; 100 percent of them have been admitted and now enrolled in Ph.D. programs at UCLA (2), University of Washington (2), and UC Irvine (1), and two out of the five scholars (40 percent) received NSF GRFP support. The new class (2023-24) of six scholars recently started in July 2023.

The PBESA nomination packet included a group letter of support from the trio of Carole Hom, coordinator of PREP@UCD,  and three scientists trained in the Chiu lab--Cameron Vasquez, Kiya Jackson, and Maribel Anguiano. “Directors of undergraduate research programs value her skill and wisdom as a mentor and thus annually place students in her laboratory,” they wrote. “Almost all the undergraduates from the Chiu lab go on to success in graduate programs or careers in science, and many coauthor publications from the lab.”

Connie Champagne, director of Educational Enrichment and Outreach Programs (EEOP) in the College of Biological Sciences, described Chiu  as a “steadfast champion of diverse undergraduates” in her letter of recommendation.  “EEOP houses multiple NIH-funded programs that serve undergraduates who are underrepresented in the biomedical, clinical, behavioral, and social sciences,” Champagne explained. “These groups are defined as individuals from racial and ethnic groups who have been shown by the National Science Foundation to be underrepresented in health-related sciences on a national basis, (Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders), individuals with disabilities, or individuals from disadvantaged background.”

'Steadfast Champion of Diverse Undergraduates'

“I have been acquainted with Dr. Chiu for approximately 10 years, and over this period she has been a steadfast champion of diverse undergraduates,” Champagne wrote. “Dr. Chiu has mentored eight EEOP undergraduates in her lab and she has been an exceptional mentor for each of them. Four of these students have graduated and have gone on to pursue research careers: three are currently enrolled in PhD programs (at Cornell, UCLA, and UC Berkeley), and one is in the NIH IRTA (Student Intramural Research and Training Award) Baccalaureate Program. The other four students are currently active in her lab.”

“I am always excited when Dr. Chiu has the capacity to mentor one of the EEOP students, as I know that each student in her lab is treated with kindness and respect,and they receive both excellent scientific training, and just as importantly, encouragement,” Champagne related. “Not only does Dr. Chiu provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for her undergraduates, but she is also personally invested in their success. Several of my students have reported that Dr. Chiu has been integral to their career development. Undergraduates in the Chiu lab are usually assigned independent research projects, and then are provided the guidance and tools to effectively conduct their investigations. One of my students commented that she was always amazed that it didn’t seem to matter what time of day (or night) that she sent a question to Dr. Chiu--she would get a meaningful and thoughtful response almost immediately. Another student commented that she hopes to someday be as good of a mentor to others as Dr. Chiu has been for her. All my students in her lab have had nothing but positive things to say about her.”

'This Is Their Home'

Nadler, noting that “Dr. Chiu is incredibly dedicated to creating a training environment that values and recognizes the critical role of mentoring in career development and progression,” pointed out that she “has established and maintains an inclusive training and research environment. She lets them know that this is their ‘home’ and emphasizes that they treat the lab as their ‘home base.’ She gives undergraduates space to work not only on their lab projects but also to study, do classwork, and spend time with other members of the lab.”

“Dr. Chiu encourages and trains her mentees to explore a diverse range of career paths, from entrepreneurship to academic research, all the while emphasizing rigorous experimental methods, reporting of results, and open science,” Nadler shared. “To help advance their careers, she assists them in applying for scholarships and fellowships. She assists them with their abstracts and obtains funding for them to attend national and international conferences.”

“Dr. Chiu supports students in other ways,” Nadler wrote. “As the Entomology Graduate Program chair, she started the practice of the graduate student Yearly Cost of Living (COL) survey, even before the COVID pandemic, to collect current data on rent and food expenses to make a case to the faculty for appropriate stipend increases. This has improved faculty understanding of student stress and welfare.”

Joanna Chiu and her Golden Retriever
Joanna Chiu and Oliver, one of her Golden Retrievers

Nadler concluded that Chiu “offers the tools, guidance, support, empathy, enthusiasm, and feedback that her undergraduate and graduate students need to thrive and succeed. But above all—and this is crucial--she truly cares about her students.”

A native of Hong Kong and a first-generation college student, Joanna received her bachelor's degree, magna cum laude, in biology and music from Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, and her doctorate in molecular genetics in 2004 from New York University, New York. She trained as a postdoctoral fellow from 2004 to 2010 in molecular chronobiology at the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  Her postdoctoral training was funded by an NIH F32 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award postdoctoral fellowship and K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. (See feature story)

The 13 Winners of PBESA Awards

PBESA announced the 13 winners of its annual awards on Friday. They are:

  • C. W. Woodworth Award: Elizabeth Beers, Washington State University (WSU)
  • Distinction in Student Mentoring Award: Joanna Chiu, UC Davis
  • Distinguished Achievement in Extension Award: Wendy Sue Wheeler, WSU
  • Excellence in Integrated Pest Management: David Haviland, UC Cooperative Extension, Kern County
  • Distinguished Achievement in Teaching: Juli Carrillo, University of British Columbia
  • Entomology Team Work Award: Tobin Northfield and Colleagues, WSU
  • Medical, Urban and Veterinary Entomology Award: Monika Gulia-Nuss, University of Nevada
  • Physiology, Biochemistry, and Toxicology Award: Naoki Yamanaka, UC Riverside
  • Plant-Insect Ecosystems Award: Allison Hansen, UC Riverside
  • Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity: Silas Bossert, WSU
  • Dr. Stephen Garczynski Undergraduate Research Scholarship: Grant Wass, Palomar College, San Diego
  • John Henry Comstock Award: Dave Elmquist, University of Idaho

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