campus news

UB biomedical sciences grads excel in community as well as the lab

From left, Jeannie Padowski, Rachel Esther Sanyu, Jennifer Surtees during the undergraduate Biomedical commencement ceremony.

From left: Jeannie Padowski, clinical associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology and undergraduate program director; new graduate Rachel Esther Sanyu; and Jennifer Surtees, professor of biochemistry and associate dean for undergraduate education, during the commencement ceremony on May 19 for biomedical sciences students in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Photo: Sandra Kicman


Published May 22, 2024

“As a group, they are just super motivated to make a difference. ”
Jennifer A. Surtees, associate dean for undergraduate education and STEM outreach, and professor
Department of Biochemistry

For some aspiring young scientists, Sunday’s graduation ceremony for biomedical sciences students at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences was the first they got to celebrate. Their high school graduation ceremonies in 2020 never took place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That experience, and others that have occurred during and since the pandemic, may be contributing to what Jacobs School faculty are seeing as a surge in social awareness and community engagement among these graduates.

During the university-wide Celebration of Student Academic Excellence on May 2, 17 Jacobs School students were recognized, including many who have excelled both inside and outside the lab.

Motivated to make a difference

“As a group, they are just super motivated to make a difference,” says Jennifer A. Surtees, associate dean for undergraduate education and STEM outreach, and professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School. “I’m sure that the way they see the world has been very much influenced by living through the pandemic, by the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests for social justice, and just by having their eyes opened to what’s going on in the world and in the community.”

They are, Surtees says, “unusually accomplished.”

From left: Biomedical sciences graduates Luke Hess, Lea Kyle, Bryan R. Renzoni and Sarah Bukhari pose together following their commencement ceremony.

From left: Biomedical sciences graduates Luke Hess, Lea Kyle, Bryan R. Renzoni and Sarah Bukhari pose together following their commencement ceremony. Photo: Sandra Kicman

Luke Hess is one of them. He graduated with a BS in biochemistry, and as a recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, one of the most competitive in the U.S., will pursue a PhD in cancer biology at the University of Michigan.

A student researcher in Surtees’ lab and at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center under Katerina Gurova, Hess loves to talk about his science, but he’s been equally involved in the community. At UB, he discovered Alternative Spring Break, which provides opportunities for students to perform service at organizations in Western New York.

“I was doing service at the Big Big Table, a pay-as-you-can café, and was inspired by how personable and joyous the staff were when talking with patrons,” Hess says. “I watched them crack jokes and forge unbreakable bonds with the community they served.

“I realized the ability to pursue an education is not about money, awards or publications,” he says, “but instead about serving the community in the best way I know possible.”

That made Hess want to inspire other students, so he became an alternative break leader, leading several successful trips during school breaks.

Hess was awarded the Dorothy M. Haas Community Engagement Award from the Office of Student Life, which honors students completing undergraduate studies who have demonstrated a philosophy of servant leadership through their service and investment in the growth and development of others.

Lea Kyle, another biochemistry major, works in the lab of Elizabeth A. Wohlfert in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, where her research focuses on the impacts of chronic Toxoplasma gondii infection on muscle function and integrity.

One of four UB biosciences students who received a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, the highest honor SUNY gives to students, Kyle was also a recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship last year.

A University Honors College Scholar, Kyle attributes her interest in community work to her mother’s passion for volunteering. “She introduced me to volunteer work at a young age and has always pushed me to strive for greatness, including pushing for the world as a whole to be better,” she says. “It forces me to think critically about what they teach us and question everything, asking why things have to be the way they are and how we can change it.”

She is pursuing a master’s in public health. “Eventually I will pursue a PhD in immunology and would love to work in the public sector to help fight infectious diseases in the U.S. and globally,” she says.

Sarah Bukhari, Bryan R. Renzoni and Rachel Esther Sanyu were also awarded the Chancellor’s Award.

Bukhari won the outstanding biochemistry student award this year. She is volunteer coordinator and vice president of the largest student-run pre-health organization, the Association of Pre-Medical Students, and was awarded a Community Engagement micro-credential.

She also received UB’s Visions of Social Justice Award, which honors students engaging in work that fosters human dignity and common humanity by promoting cross-cultural learning, interaction and education. She was recognized for co-founding, with another Jacobs School graduate, the Ignite Ilm Foundation, a non-profit focused on educational equity in Pakistan, which donates supplies to underprivileged schools throughout the Punjab region.

Bukhari has volunteered as an after-school tutor mentor and with Feedmore WNY. She is also a dance coach and social media coordinator for the Pakistani Student Association.

Sanyu, an international student from Uganda, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology and toxicology.

An Honors College Scholar, she conducted oncology research in the lab of Wendy Huss at Roswell Park and at Johnson & Johnson, where she earned the 2023 Inspire Spotlight Award.

Sanyu founded a health care app called MedScript, a digital service addressing limitations in cross-country communication, learning and networking that hinder health care exchanges. She is the inaugural recipient of UB’s McCall MacBain Regional Award, a $10,000 scholarship recognizing engaged student leaders demonstrating “exceptional character, community engagement, leadership potential, entrepreneurial spirit, academic strength and intellectual curiosity.”

Renzoni majored in biochemistry. He was a University Honors College Presidential Scholar and Honors College Ambassador.

A BioXFEL Scholar, he has received multiple research positions and has contributed to the development of novel organic and organometallic compounds with applications as cancer therapies.

Renzoni served as a co-chair of the G14 Leadership Summit, president and executive adviser of UB ChemClub, and has helped lead The Enchords, UB’s all-gender a cappella group.

Bukhari and Kyle also completed UB’s Be the Impact Challenge, which challenges students to get involved in the local community while at the university. Recognized students have to have performed and tracked 500 hours of community service.

Hess says he’s grateful for his experience, required by his major, of working in a UB lab, while he also credits the Office of Student Engagement with helping him grow as a community leader.

“What’s special is the nurturing environment of UB’s Jacobs School,” he says. “The environment produced in the labs helped me gain confidence and feel open to trying things outside of my comfort zone. I would not trade my experience here for the world.”