April 13, 2005

Bender wins outstanding dissertation award

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Kelly S. Bender, a former doctoral student who studies bacteria that can be used to fight environmental toxins, has won Southern Illinois University Carbondale's annual outstanding dissertation award. She will receive a $1,000 cash prize during Graduate School commencement exercises May 13.

A graduate of SIUC's molecular biology, microbiology and biochemistry program, Bender identified the genes that help a select group of bacteria dispose of perchlorate, a byproduct from the manufacture of solid rocket fuel, explosives and defoliants. She then developed an easy way of finding these bacteria at contaminated sites. A patent for the process is pending, and SIUC has given BioInsite Inc., a firm that specializes in biologically based environmental clean-up, a license to use the technology involved.

SIUC mentors describe her work as "ground-breaking" and "novel" and Bender herself as a "pioneer" and a "gifted researcher" while noting that a prestigious journal, Applied Environmental Microbiology, has already published two articles that emerged from her research.

University of Missouri-Columbia biochemist Judy D. Wall, in whose lab Bender currently works as a post-doctoral fellow, said in a letter supporting Bender's candidacy for the award, "Her seminal work on important environmental microbes has laid the foundation for insight into a little-recognized metabolism. The bacteria are difficult to culture and are not easily genetically accessible. Her observations of the genetic complement of the bacteria and the regulation of the genes for reduction may sound easy to do, but working with these bacteria is anything but routine."

Runners-up were civil engineer Tibebe Dessalegne and anthropologist Kevin Schwarz.

Dessalegne, now a senior engineer with BEM Systems Inc. working at the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach, Fla., used nature-based algorithms in developing new ways to manage river-reservoir systems that would cause the least possible harm to nearby plants and animals.

Schwarz, now principal investigator for archaeology with ASC Group Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, looked at how the architecture of ancient Maya houses and ancestral shrines in northern Guatemala adapted to accommodate changing family and social systems as their society collapsed and a new one arose to take its place.

Richard E. and Donna T. Falvo, retired faculty members living in North Carolina, sponsor the dissertation competition, a 17-year-old tradition at SIUC.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.