Essential celebration

August 21, 2020
A screenshot of Emily Balskus during the virtual toast

A hundred CCB community members joined the department’s first “virtual toast” to honor Emily Balskus

By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy

 

“We are here to celebrate Emily’s greatness.” 

That’s how Ted Betley, the Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (CCB), welcomed about a hundred students, postdocs, faculty and staff to the department’s first “virtual toast,” the launch of a series of gatherings, invented by the newly-formed CCB Community Committee, to applaud colleagues for their outstanding achievements.

On Friday, August 14, 2020, the community gathered not only to celebrate Professor Emily Balskus’ latest prestigious award but also her lab (the fuel for her greatness), the department’s vast but often invisible network of support, and, simply, to celebrate having something to celebrate.

“Thank you for winning, so that we had something to celebrate together,” said Deana Reardon, CCB’s interim executive director. “It's been a long time since we've been able to come together for positive news.”

 

Eight screenshots of different people who joined the CCB virtual toast
About a hundred CCB community members joined the department's first "virtual toast," including (from top left) Department Chair Ted Betley, Interim Executive Director Deana Reardon, Professor David Liu, Facilities and Operations Specialist Chris Perry, (from bottom left) two current Balskus Lab graduate students, Matt Volpe and Duncan Kountz, Balskus Laboratory Administrator Rhonda Pautler, and CCB's Senior Preceptor and Director of Advanced Undergraduate Laboratories, Heidi Vollmer-Snarr

 

In March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the physical CCB to close and shut down spontaneous conversations that happened in the Department Center hub on Fruitful Wednesdays, waiting in line at the coffee machines, or in the twisty, hectic halls of the chemistry complex. Ever since, virtually all scheduled talks delivered difficult news: We won’t be coming back as soon as we hoped; we must do better to fight racism and embody anti-racism; and this fall, our world will look very different from what we know, what we want, and where we need to be.

And yet, CCB experienced some positive news, too: We donated all our personal protective equipment to local hospitals; we welcomed a new Department Chair, Professor Ted Betley; we reopened the labs with a slow, staggered, smart progression toward full capacity. And now, last Friday, we celebrated Balskus’ rare achievement: Winning a National Science Foundation Alan T. Waterman Award.

“To get a sense of how special this recognition is,” said Professor Eric Jacobsen, Balskus’ Ph.D. advisor during her time as a CCB graduate student, in his remarks, “Harvard faculty have received exactly 30 Nobel Prizes since 1975. But Emily is only the sixth Waterman Award winner. So, think about that,” he continued, “you’re five times more likely to bump into a Nobel Prize winner on our campus than a Waterman laureate.”

 

A screenshot of Eric Jacobsen as he delivered remarks
During the "toast," Eric Jacobsen, who was Balskus' Ph.D. advisor, spoke about her many accomplishments.

 

In an email the morning before the virtual toast, Chris Perry, CCB’s facilities and operations specialist and arguably the most gregarious CCB community member, remembered when Balskus was still a graduate student in Jacobsen’s lab. “All of us always knew that Emily was a Rock Star Scientist – and a Rock Star in so many other ways,” he wrote. He included a photo of Balskus on stage at her wedding reception with a bass guitar in hand. (She later admitted she doesn’t actually play bass, though her husband, another CCB alum, was in the since dis-banded department band named Ballast).

Both Jacobsen and Perry took time to remember another invaluable CCB figure: Jerry Connors, a 48-year veteran of the department, who passed away on July 30, 2020. A plaque in his honor now hangs on the south side of the Mallinckrodt building where, as Director of Laboratories, he forged close-knit ties with students, faculty and staff, including a young graduate student named Emily Balskus. Connors, Perry said, would have been so proud to see Balskus turn her once-abstract ideas into tangible results.

“If he [Connors] could,” Jacobsen said, “he would be here on the screen with us today beaming with pride over Emily’s success.”

“He was always a big, big supporter of everyone here,” Balskus said, “but I think one of the things that was very special about him was that he could make everybody feel really, really special and supported.”

 

"Emily is strong and serious. She measures her words and actions carefully and, mostly, she lets her work and deeds do the talking."

- Professor Eric Jacobsen

 

In his remarks, Jacobsen honored not just the science that earned Balskus and her lab the Waterman’s $1 million in funding but also her modesty. She may be a rock star, as Perry said, but she’d never brag about it. “Rock stars are usually cocky and flamboyant,” Jacobsen said, “and we know Emily is not like that. Emily is strong and serious. She measures her words and actions carefully and, mostly, she lets her work and deeds do the talking.”

He also praised Balskus’ dedication to serving the department and “her heartfelt commitment to inclusiveness.”

In her own remarks, Balskus proved Jacobsen right. First, she thanked her research group. “It is such a pleasure to be able to work with all of you, to learn with you and from you,” she said. “I’m so grateful for your creativity, your enthusiasm, the passion you bring to your science, and the belief that you have in our shared scientific vision.” She also thanked Rhonda Pautler, her laboratory administrator, and the hidden administrative cogs and wheels that make sure she and her lab members can concentrate on their science.

Once Betley, Jacobsen, and Balskus finished their brief remarks, the entire CCB community unmuted to say a collective “Congratulations!” They also asked questions like whether she’ll get a medal (yes, but not until after the pandemic), whether she has any upcoming talks (yes, a few virtual seminars, one specifically for the Waterman), and how she celebrated her win (a dinner with champagne and her husband).

When asked how she might use the million-dollar award, Balskus said the extra research funding gives her lab the rare opportunity to pursue ambitious, potentially risky projects. Two of her current graduate students, Matt Volpe and Duncan Kountz, joined in to joke about which project most deserves the funds; Kountz proposed buying a particle collider.

Balskus concluded the event with another nod to her lab’s resiliency and dedication: “For a lot of our projects,” she said, “we really don’t have a clear roadmap of how we’re going to move forward. There aren’t necessarily great models, so it takes a lot of trust, and it takes a lot of creativity to be willing to take on problems like that.”

Sounds familiar. To get through those hardships, her lab members support, help, and mentor each other, an example of how the department can and should approach the uncertainty of 2020, which will no doubt bring more challenges. But we won’t forgot to celebrate our community’s hard-won successes, too: We’ll be raising our virtual glasses again soon.