Graduate School recognizes excellence among students, faculty at Honors Banquet

A projector displays the words

The second annual Honors Banquet commemorated excellence in academics, leadership and innovation among Graduate School students and faculty. The banquet on March 18 honored and reflected on the remarkable achievements in research and creative expression from the more than 50 graduate programs and departments represented in the Graduate School.

“The students and faculty are the heartbeat of our academic community. Their unwavering commitment to excellence and their pursuit of knowledge and innovation advance our mission,” said C. André Christie Mizell, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School. “The Honors Banquet not only honors the achievements of these individuals, but reaffirms the Graduate School’s dedication to empowering leaders, mentors and innovators.”

Several awards were presented, including the Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring Award, the Outstanding Doctoral Student Award, the Excellence in Leadership Award, the Excellence in Innovation Award and the Distinguished Partner Award.

Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring Award

The Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring award was established in 2022; an annual award honoring outstanding mentorship is a way of affirming our mission of helping students reach their full potential as scholars and human beings. Each of our three mentoring award recipients will receive an engraved plaque and $1,500.

  • Ethan Lippmann: Lippmann is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and holds secondary appointments in Biomedical Engineering, Interdisciplinary Materials Science, Neurology, and Chemical and Physical Biology. Further, Lippmann has an appointment as training faculty in the Vanderbilt Brain Institute. He also serves as the director of undergraduate studies in Chemical Engineering.He is committed to empowering his students to explore, fail, and then try again while being unconditionally supported. One of his colleagues says, “Dr. Lippman is an absolutely terrific mentor who can successfully manage and mentor a large research group while making every student feel as an integral part of the team.” His mentees say the mentorship they had under Professor Lippman is unparalleled.
  • Jeffrey Johnston: Johnston has been with Vanderbilt since 2006, when he started as a professor of chemistry. Since then, he has taken on several positions including co-director of NSF REU in Chemical Biology, director of graduate recruiting in Chemistry, and a Stevenson Professor of Chemistry. Johnston makes a point to mentor students beyond research through offering high-level coursework, preparing students to exceed graduate program benchmarks and providing intensive lab training. One of his previous mentees commented, “He pursued only the highest-quality education for his students. On top of demonstrating masterful knowledge through [the] courses he taught, Jeff consistently maintained high academic standards by ensuring his students were actively engaged and learning in a variety of ways.”Professor Johnston currently oversees six graduate students and has one single stipulation: that they are passionate about the research.
  • Isabel Gauthier: Gauthier is the David K. Wilson Chair of Psychology, professor of radiology and radiological sciences and professor of psychology. She has been at Vanderbilt since 1999 and has left a lasting impact on countless students. Gauthier places immense value on mentoring graduate students, acknowledging that no two students are the same and adjusting her mentoring style to fit the individual student. She makes it known that despite winning dozens of awards, mentoring students has been the most rewarding feature of her career.One of her first graduate student mentees comments that she “has been an exemplary role model for her graduate students; as a strong woman in science one could argue that she is also an impressive role model to female graduate students across the field. Her bold and unwavering dedication to her science‑including her role helming one of the field’s most prestigious journals‑is highly visible, impactful and inspirational.” Colleagues say they have learned how to be a better mentor to students through watching Professor Gauthier.

Outstanding Doctoral Student Award

This award recognizes students who demonstrate exceptional scholarly accomplishments. The awardees were nominated by faculty and selected from across the various colleges and schools for their overall academic record and the outstanding quality of their research, scholarship and/or creative expression. The recipients were honored with engraved plaques and $500.

  • Brayan Serratos Garcia, Spanish and Portuguese: Brayan’s in-progress dissertation, entitled “Navigating the Cross and Crossing the Sea: Collaborative Knowledge Production, Visual Literacies, and Racial Formations in Spanish Asia and America,” includes the “analysis of maps, missionary and scientific literature, letters and illustrated manuscripts, many of which have never been published or even read.”His work on “how colonialism generated different iterations of hybrid identities and cultural productions, across time, space, and representational, differences” will help contribute to “our understanding of how colonialism and coloniality worked in the early modern period.” Impressively, Brayan has earned the distinction of advanced proficiency in Chinese, a major advantage in work concerning global Iberian humanities. His current languages of scholarship include Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Chinese and English, and he began working on his skills in Japanese last summer.
  • Mellissa Meisels, Political Science: Mellissa is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science, expected to graduate this May. In her dissertation, Mellissa endeavors to understand the relationship between candidates’ presentation of self, the electoral environment, the actions of political donors and the consequences in terms of legislative behavior. Her work in exploring the dynamics of congressional primary competition will help contribute to closing gaps in our understanding of primary elections.Impressively, Mellissa will be starting as a tenure-track assistant professor at Yale University in fall 2025 after taking a one-year postdoc position at Yale. In addition to these accomplishments, Mellissa’s scholarly work is being recognized by the larger political science community. To date, she has one publication and four completed working papers, each of which has been presented at least once at external conferences.
  • Yu Wang, Computer Science: Yu is a doctoral student in the computer science program, expected to graduate this May. Yu’s main research area concerns “data quality-aware graph machine learning methods aim[ed] at improving the performance of graph neural network models to address data quality issues on graph-structured data.” Through this research, they are hoping to better understand “underlying data issues, and, in turn, inform the design of graph machine learning models that can mitigate these issues.”As his professors aptly pointed out, Yu has been very productive during his time as a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University, maintaining a commitment to continually enriching the local and academic community. Yu is widely published in top-tier conferences’ proceedings and journals, currently being a part of 13 first-author papers and six co-author papers. His academic and professional accomplishments are widely celebrated with a multitude of accolades.

Excellence in Leadership Award

Presented by Irene Wallrich, associate director of the Russell G. Hamilton Graduate Leadership Institute, the Excellence in Leadership Award recognizes a graduate student who made a major impact on their community through service, inspiring others to do the same. The student receives a $500 prize and an engraved plaque.

  • Kayla Anderson: Kayla is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Community Research and Action program who has demonstrated exceptional leadership and service both on campus and within the broader community. Through her research, she has engaged with community groups and local youth, amplifying their voices to decision-makers within our local community. Her current research investigates cancer incidence and local environmental issues and infrastructure in Grundy County, Tennessee. She has also been involved in action research on local housing issues in Nashville. For this project, she led a team of graduate students who analyzed the effects of short-term rentals on housing affordability and neighborhood quality at the request of local affordable housing advocates. As a result of this work, she was asked to testify before the state legislature, which was considering a bill that would remove municipalities’ authority to regulate short-term rentals. Her evidence-based, community-informed testimony played a role in preventing this bill from passing. Kayla also worked with her fellow graduate students to help them prepare to present their research to the affordable housing committee of Nashville’s Metro Council, which ultimately helped to secure funding for a local pilot of right-to-counsel for defendants in eviction cases. It is inspiring how Kayla has empowered and amplified the voices of others for the benefit of our community.

Excellence in Innovation Award

This award is co-sponsored by the Wond’ry and the Graduate School and was presented by David Owens, Evans Family Executive Director at the Wond’ry. The award acknowledges one outstanding doctoral candidate’s excellence across scholarship, creativity and translation of their research into applied impact. The recipient is honored with an engraved plaque and $500.

  • Xinchun Ran: Xinchun’s achievements include the creation of EnzyKR, a deep learning model published in the journal Chemical Science, which leverages machine learning to accurately predict enzyme stereoselectivity‑a groundbreaking advancement in the field of chemistry. His innovative contributions extend beyond his academic work. He has leveraged his research to develop the venture EnzyML, a platform that holds tremendous promise in reducing labor costs and accelerating drug synthesis in chiral drug development‑a critical area for future growth in the pharmaceutical industry. This innovation has important implications in accelerating drug synthesis, contributing to the timely availability of new and more effective drugs in the market. Xinchun’s work not only has the potential to revolutionize drug development processes but also to have widespread impact across biotech sectors, from therapeutics to climate tech. His entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to translating research into tangible solutions exemplify the essence of this award.

Distinguished Partner Award

The Graduate School collaborates with many campus partners and honors one office with a Distinguished Partner Award. The award recognizes a remarkable team whose dedication, support and collaboration have significantly advanced the strategic vision and goals of the Graduate School.

  • Office of the University Registrar: The Office of the University Registrar is the cornerstone of our academic ecosystem at Vanderbilt. With meticulous attention to detail, they oversee the intricacies of our academic records, course scheduling and policy enforcement. Yet, it is not only the fulfillment of these functions that sets them apart; it is their commitment to going above and beyond to support our students, faculty and staff that truly distinguishes them.