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Brian Rabe '13 to be awarded Thomas Jefferson Prize

  • Jefferson Prize
    Jefferson Prize  Brian Rabe '13 is the 2013 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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No one can accuse Brian Rabe ’13 of wasting his time at William & Mary. In his final semester, Rabe is finishing up a major in biology; he already has completed work on a chemistry major. He’s been an active and productive researcher since his first semester and a campus leader, serving as both a teaching assistant and a resident assistant.

Rabe is the 2013 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. Endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the award recognizes excellence in the sciences and mathematics and commemorates Jefferson’s relationship with Professor William Small. The namesake of the William Small Physical Laboratory, Prof. Small was Jefferson’s science and mathematics tutor at William & Mary. The Jefferson Prize is one of the awards traditionally bestowed at Charter Day, which commemorates the founding of William & Mary.

The Jefferson Prize is the latest in a series of honors and awards garnered by Rabe during his undergraduate years at the university. In 2012 he was named one of William & Mary’s three Goldwater Scholars as well as one of the university’s two Beckman Scholars. He also collected high praise from a hard-to-impress group of William & Mary’s teacher-researchers.

“Brian is perhaps a once-in-a-career find and I have never in my career given any student a higher, more enthusiastic, less reserved recommendation than I give Mr. Brian Rabe,” wrote English-Stonehouse (Term) Associate Professor of Biology Mark Forsyth, Rabe’s faculty advisor. “He may be the best we've ever had in the biology department!”

Rabe could reach his goal of becoming a molecular biologist though majoring in biology or majoring in chemistry; he chose the road less traveled and majored in both. He made his choice in his first year at William & Mary, after considerable discussion with his freshman advisor, Associate Professor of Chemistry Carey Bagdassarian.

“It worked out well. There was a point at which I might just minored in chemistry, but Dr. Bagdassarian encouraged me to continue,” Rabe explained. “No one ever, ever pressured me into doing it. Dr. Bagdassarian was very clear when we were talking about it. He said, ‘You can do it if you want to, but it’s up to you.’”

Like many William & Mary science majors, Rabe got involved early in research. He started in the lab of Randolph Coleman, associate professor of chemistry, working on a project that used computer modeling to investigate aspects of multiple sclerosis at the molecular level.

“His lab mapped metabolic disorders in silico—Dr. Coleman called it ‘playing in the sandbox’—to help understand the prognosis,” Rabe explained.

“But it was really when I was offered the chance to join the HHMI Freshman Research Program in the biology department that I found my passion—doing developmental neurobiology on a molecular genetics level,” he said.

This program, one of several initiatives at William & Mary funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, allows freshman to start working in a research lab. When Rabe entered the HHMI program, he joined the lab of Margaret Saha, Chancellor Professor of Biology. Saha got Rabe working on cloning and characterizing a class of neurotransmitters.

“When Brian entered the lab at the beginning of spring semester his freshman year, it became immediately clear that this was no ordinary student,” Saha wrote in her letter nominating Rabe for the Jefferson Prize. “By the end of the semester he was making major intellectual contributions to the project. In short, he has been absolutely amazing in the lab, both on the theoretical and the practical level.”

He has presented his research at a number of national and regional meetings, including the national Society for Developmental Biology conference at which he won the award for best undergraduate poster. He has been co-author on a number of papers published in important peer-reviewed journals.

“His work ethic is clearly the best in our department. I've seen Brian in the labs late on Saturday evenings, early Sunday mornings, and squeezing in bench time between classes,” Forsyth said. “Despite carrying a full load of academic classes, Brian puts in the time that most Ph.D. students on research assistantships put into their lab work.”

In addition to being a productive researcher, Rabe has been a teaching assistant in the biology department’s freshman honors lab since its inception two years go. “It’s another research-based alternative to the typical freshman biology lab,” Rabe explained. “Freshmen get their own research projects.”

Rabe has developed a way of blending his various roles together. Saha notes that In addition to serving as a teaching assistant and being a go-to student mentor/advisor in the labs, Rabe has developed a degree of notoriety for his study sessions in the dorms where he is an RA.

“You’ll see him walking down the hall, and he’s like ‘Hey, everybody! It’s mitosis night!’” said a former resident of Barrett Hall who benefited from such impromptu sessions. Often as not, Rabe has brought along baked goods as an additional inducement. He also shares his baked goods—“indicative of his warm, outgoing, ever-helpful personality,” Saha says—with his lab mates.

Rabe wants to enter a Ph.D. program in developmental neurobiology. In early 2013, he has received some acceptances from graduate schools and is he is waiting to hear from some more.

“I enjoy research a lot, and I want to continue that, and I also have enjoyed my experiences in teaching, and I want to continue. I feel like being a professor at the university level would be ideal,” he said.