Champions of research: Faculty, students recognized with annual awards

Joshua Rusnak, applied biochemistry and molecular biology major studying bacteria, one of nine to be honored on Research Day
Students present their project posters during Research Day at UW-Stout.
​Jerry Poling | May 8, 2023

Joshua Rusnak, a junior at UW-Stout, has known for a long time that he wants to be a scientist and go into research.

“In grade school our science teacher told us that everything was made of elements and those elements were made of atoms. From that moment I thought, ‘That’s it. Understanding that and how it works is the only thing that I can see,” said Rusnak, of Minneapolis.

That passion for science brought him to UW-Stout for the applied biochemistry and molecular biology major. The lab-based program has allowed him to dive into research, especially on the subject of bacteriophages, viral entities that infect some types of bacteria. Bacteriophages someday could be a new way to treat drug-resistant infections.

Joshua Rusnak works in a UW-Stout microbiology lab surrounded by agar plates, in which bacteria and fungi are grown using a layer of nutrient in a Petri dish.
Joshua Rusnak works in a UW-Stout microbiology lab surrounded by agar plates, in which bacteria and fungi are grown using a layer of nutrient in a Petri dish. / UW-Stout

In recognition of his success and the promise he shows, Rusnak has been named this year’s Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher in the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Management.

“It is exciting and validating to have the work I have put toward research recognized,” Rusnak said. “Research can be a frustrating and time-consuming process, so the recognition feels like a badge of honor, like you’ve truly come into yourself as a scientist.”

Rusnak, whose adviser is Assistant Professor Brian Teague, was one of nine to be honored during the Research Day presentations and awards held recently at the Memorial Student Center.

From left, faculty Outstanding Researcher award winners are Laura McCullough, Pranabendu Mitra and Tina Lee.
From left, faculty Outstanding Researcher award winners are Laura McCullough, Pranabendu Mitra and Tina Lee. / UW-Stout

Faculty award winners are:

  • Tina Lee, social science, Outstanding Research Mentor
  • Laura McCullough, chemistry and physics, Senior Outstanding Researcher
  • Pranabendu Mitra, food science, Emerging Outstanding Researcher.

Other students honored and their faculty advisers are:

  • Delaney Hoffman, of Dorchester, senior, video production: College of Arts and Human Sciences, Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher; Keif Oss
  • Sadhana Thokachichu, of Khammam, India, Master of Science in food science and technology: Outstanding Graduate Student Researcher; Mitra.

Honorable mention student awards are:

  • Jonathan Alesch, of Shell Lake, Master of Fine arts, design; Erik Evensen
  • Britney Serafina, of Baldwin, senior, environmental science, CSTEMM; Amanda Little
  • DJ Walker, of Menomonie, senior, applied social science, CAHS; Lee, Thomas Pearson, Chris Marshall.
From left, student Outstanding Researcher award winners are Sadhana Thokachichu, Joshua Rusnak and Delaney Hoffman.
From left, student Outstanding Researcher award winners are Sadhana Thokachichu, Joshua Rusnak and Delaney Hoffman. / UW-Stout

The faculty mentor and graduate student awards are new this year.

The faculty mentor honor recognizes a highly noteworthy individual who has demonstrated excellence in supporting student research and fostering students’ educational, professional and personal growth through participation.

Research Day is hosted by the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, which supports research across campus. The annual event featured projects and presentations by nearly 300 students on May 2 and the launch of the annual Journal of Student Research.

Students Ben Bryans, foreground, and Joshua Rusnak conduct an experiment in a UW-Stout lab.
Students Ben Bryans, foreground, and Joshua Rusnak conduct an experiment in a UW-Stout lab. / UW-Stout

Three years of research immersion

Rusnak has been a lab teaching assistant for two semesters and part of Teague’s research group. Since February, Rusnak has isolated seven bacteriophages that have been loaded into a DNA sequencer for analysis.

“I’ve mentored over 100 undergraduate researchers, and Joshua is definitely in the top five,” Teague said. “The scope of Joshua’s interests and the sophistication of his projects keep expanding, culminating in the bacteriophage project where I am more or less helping him access the resources he needs, letting him use my research space and otherwise staying out of his way!” Teague said. “He has developed from a student doing mentored research to a full-fledged junior collaborator and contributor to the broader scientific enterprise.”

Joshua Rusnak talks about his research during Research Day on campus.
Joshua Rusnak talks about his research during Research Day on campus. / UW-Stout

Last fall, in Teague’s Bioinformatics and Big Data course, Rusnak sequenced, assembled and annotated the genome of an uncommon bacterium that is potentially related to hospital-acquired infections and colony collapse in bee hives, Teague said, then uploaded his work to the National Center for Biotechnology Information database for access by researchers around the world.

Rusnak, who applied for and received a Student Research Grant funded by Stout University Foundation, hopes to continue his bacteriophage research in graduate school. He also presented his work at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research in Eau Claire in April.

He started doing research as a first-year student. Skills he has learned include molecular cloning, sample preparation, inventory and record keeping, how to make a standard curve, how to apply and use math to solve real-world problems and much more.

He said his access to professors, mentors, labs and equipment at UW-Stout have “exceeded my expectations.” Core courses in his major have included semesterlong research projects. UW-Stout has three times more labs than classrooms, part of the university’s applied learning focus.

“Research has greatly helped to solidify the often difficult concepts we learn in the classroom and move them to a tangible space. Research is the space where you can observe theory come to life,” Rusnak said, noting he enjoys the collaborative process with Teague and other students. “The adviser-advisee relationship has been one of the most important relationships I have and has shaped the scientist I am today.”

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