A Commonwealth of Virginia Website
For Immediate Release: February 15, 2018
Contacts: Office of the Governor: Ofirah Yheskel, Ofirah.Yheskel@governor.virginia.gov

Governor Ralph Northam Announces 2018 Outstanding STEM Award Recipients


RICHMOND – Governor Ralph Northam and Science Museum of Virginia Chief Wonder Officer Richard Conti today announced the 2018 Outstanding STEM Award recipients. Six individuals were selected for their scientific contributions which help strengthen Virginia’s position as a leader in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“Celebrating the academic excellence and entrepreneurial spirit of these Virginians helps showcase how STEM innovations tie in to our everyday lives,” said Governor Northam. “It also highlights the profound contribution that STEM makes to Virginia families and our economy. I thank these extraordinary awardees and everyone who works hard to make Virginia a leader in these important fields.”

Virginia has been recognizing excellence happening across the commonwealth with the Outstanding STEM Awards for more than 30 years. This year winners are honored in three categories:

  • Virginia’s Outstanding Scientist, awarded to scientists who have made globally significant contributions to their field.
  • STEM Catalyst, awarded to citizens whose passion, ingenuity and efforts inspire others the power of STEM to improve the world.
  • STEM Phenom, award to a student who applied STEM principles for exceptional ends to make the world a better place.

“One of our top priorities is to support our STEM programs and elevate Best Practices in the STEM fields. This is one of the best ways to focus on jobs of the future,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.

“The work that these award winners have produced is not only inspiring, but it is also life changing, and in some cases life-saving,” added Richard Conti. “Too often we don’t stop to think about the people behind the innovations and technology that are commonplace in our lives. The Museum is proud to celebrate individuals who have worked tirelessly to advance our collective wellbeing. ”

The six 2018 honorees will receive their awards at the Science Museum of Virginia on Thursday, March 1. The Virginia Outstanding STEM Awards ceremony is made possible by the generous support of Altria.

Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists

Arun J. Sanyal, M.B.B.S.  M.D.

Dr. Sanyal is a pioneer in identifying the mechanisms, clinical outcomes and management of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NASH) and metabolic syndrome, a disease of increasing prevalence and global consequences. Nearly 1,000 Virginians die each year from chronic liver disease. To address this need, Dr. Sanyal has developed training programs in liver disease diagnosis and treatment, and works to incorporate them in primary care settings. In addition, he is a leader in clinical and translational research related to cirrhosis with end-stage liver disease.

Dr. Sanyal is currently the Education Core Director at Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Center for Clinical and Translational Research and a professor in the gastroenterology division at VCU’s School of Medicine. He earned several graduate degrees from institutions in India before continuing his graduate work in Texas and then starting at the Medical College of Virginia in 1987. Dr. Sanyal has published more than 300 scholarly papers, has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health for more than 17 years and has won numerous awards for his research and leadership. He was selected for the Virginia Outstanding Scientist award for his deep commitment to the betterment of human health globally via science, education and public policy.

Dr. M. Samy El-Shall

Dr. El-Shall is an internationally renowned scientist for his work in the fields of clusters and nanoscience, which is fundamental to the area of catalysis for the development of clean transportation fuels and the production of new chemicals for pharmaceutical drugs.

Dr. El-Shall was selected for the Virginia Outstanding Scientist award because of his seminal work in the area of nanocatalysis, or the use of nano particles to enhance reactions in energy and environmental applications. He pioneered the development of graphene-based catalysts to help synthesize complex organics. Dr. El-Shall was among the first scientists to demonstrate the efficiency of photothermal energy conversions via graphene-based materials which helped shape efficient solar water desalination techniques as well as removing heavy metals from polluted water.

Dr. El-Shall is the Mary Eugenia Kapp Chair in Chemistry, Commonwealth Professor and the Chairman of the Chemistry Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from Cairo University, a Ph.D. from Georgetown University and conducted postdoctoral research at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. El-Shall has published more than 255 papers and chapters, received numerous awards in chemistry and education including the Outstanding Faculty Award of the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia, and holds eight US patents. As a Jefferson Science Fellow, he worked as a Senior Science Advisor at the U.S. Department of State in 2012-13 and is an elected fellow of both the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Robert J. Orth, MS, PhD.

Dr. Orth is an expert in seagrass biology and ecology with an emphasis on restoration science. His research is mainly focused on Chesapeake Bay, but his restoration innovations and successes have served as models for scientists around the world. Annual results from a seagrass mapping program Dr. Orth developed are used by the federal government, as well as state entities in Virginia and Maryland, to help evaluate the success of Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts.

Dr. Orth is a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) School of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary and currently chair of WIMS Department of Biological Sciences. At VIMS since 1974, one of his signature accomplishments has been leading a team of scientists in one of the largest and most successful seagrass restoration projects in the world in the seaside lagoons of Virginia’s Delmarva Peninsula. Dr. Orth widely published, has received a variety of awards and serves on a number of distinguished boards and commissions. Dr. Orth was selected for the Virginia Outstanding Scientist award as much for his mentorship efforts to engage students in state and federal advisory activities as for his sustainability advances.

STEM Catalyst

Jack Ross

Inspired by the launch of the iPhone, Ross began programming smart phone apps at age 15. A year later, his apps had received more than half a million downloads and generated enough revenue to allow him to attend the University of Virginia (UVA). While at UVA, Ross worked at digital agency WillowTree developing enterprise software. Ross graduated with honors in May 2017 with a degree in computer engineering and quickly founded Beanstalk, Inc. with his brother Michael.

Beanstalk is a technology company that focuses on agricultural innovations with a goal of creating a sustainable abundance of food. Through Beanstalk, Ross is currently prototyping a fully automated vertical indoor farm in California capable of growing pesticide-free, non-GMO vegetables in high quantities while conserving energy and water. The startup plans to open a production facility in Virginia in late 2018. Ross’s work to decrease energy waste while at the same time creating nutritious food options for generations to come led to his selection as the 2018 STEM Catalyst award recipient.

STEM Phenoms

Prathik Naidu

When he was just 17 years old, Naidu developed a machine learning software to study 3D interactions of the cancer. The computational tool, called DNALoopR, is faster, less expensive and more accurately analyzes the biological patterns of cancer DNA than laboratory tools that currently exist. DNALoopR gives unprecedented insight into the inner workings of cancer, thus helping doctors create personalized treatments for millions of patients.

While attending Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Naidu had internships at Johns Hopkins University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The now 18-year-old is currently a freshman at Stanford University studying computer science. He recently joined Stanford’s Machine Learning Group and is building software tools to help improve healthcare. In addition to his schooling, Naidu is working on a startup building drones for automatic inspections of indoor spaces. Naidu was selected as a STEM Phenom for his enthusiastic advocacy in sharing his knowledge with others to inspire those around him to become change makers in addition to his application of STEM principles.

Ana Humphrey

Humphrey, a 17-year-old junior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, exemplifies STEM practices in a number of her endeavors. In 2014 Humphrey created Watershed Warriors, which was originally a club and grew into a stand-alone nonprofit in late 2017. The organization pairs high school students with fifth graders to promote environmental awareness through hands-on wetland gardening. Since it began, the restoration and educational initiative has engaged more than 475 students from mostly low-income and minority communities in Northern Virginia.

Humphrey also designed and coded a computer application that can identify colonies of E. coli bacteria in a water sample test. The inexpensive, simple and accurate app counts and classifies colonies of E. Coli in the sample, a task usually done by hand. When used in the field, Humphrey’s program can help provide citizen scientists, water quality groups and government entities an easier and more consistent method for monitoring waterborne E. coli. 

Humphrey was selected as a 2018 Outstanding STEM Award recipient for increasing student interest in STEM fields at a young age and encouraging youth to take action by getting involved in their communities. In addition to being named a Virginia STEM Phenom, she has received several other prizes and awards including recognition at national science fairs for her multi-year astronomy research project focusing on exoplanets.