Alumni Honored at Celebration of Distinction

Posted: April 21, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Ken Budd, BA ’88, MA ’97 and Colleen Kearney Rich

Each year, the George Mason University Alumni Association recognizes and honors outstanding alumni, students and faculty members for their achievements and contributions to the university during its Celebration of Distinction, held this year on April 16. Among the awards presented are Alumnus of the Year and the Alumni Service Award.

Jeffery Taubenberger

Alumnus of the Year

Jeffery Taubenberger
Jeffery Taubenberger

Jeffery Taubenberger, MD, PhD (BS Biology ’82), is not just an infectious-disease scientist, he’s a pandemic detective — the Sherlock Holmes of influenza. In 2005, Taubenberger solved a medical mystery, identifying the specific cause of the 1918 pandemic that killed nearly 50 million people. The culprit: an influenza virus that began in birds and adapted to humans.

Pandemics occur every 30 to 40 years on average — the last one was in 1968 — so Taubenberger’s research is more than mere “historical curiosity,” as he puts it.

“We’re using it to investigate what mutations allow such viruses to adapt to humans and how it causes disease,” says Taubenberger, a senior investigator with NIH’s Laboratory of Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md. “This information can be crucial for developing new drugs and vaccines.”

His papers on the 1918 virus were widely acclaimed — Taubenberger was ABC News’ “Person of the Week” in October 2005 — but his motivation is the simple exhilaration of discovery.

As a child, he was always interested in biology, a passion that grew in eighth grade when he met William Drohan, a scientist from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). By 10th grade, Taubenberger was doing science fair projects in Drohan’s lab.

“I was looking at the possible genetic components to cancer,” he says. Taubenberger arrived at Mason as a 16-year-old freshman, played oboe with Mason’s orchestra while working part time for NCI, and composed a piece that the orchestra performed his senior year.

Someday he hopes to return and take music classes, but until then, you’ll find him in the lab, performing research that could save millions of lives.

Penny C. Welke

The Alumni Service Award

Jenny Welke
Penny C. Welke

Penny C. Welke, BIS ’82 and JD ’85, started working as a paralegal in her mid-thirties. It was the late 1970s, and Welke had always wanted to return to college and complete the bachelor’s degree she had started years before, but thought that unlikely.

“Things were different then. When I was 35, if you didn’t have a degree, you probably weren’t going to [get one],” she says.

As a result of her new job, she became interested in law as a career, and it was her boss, attorney Jack Crickenberger, who told her about the “law reader” program, in which people study law under the supervision of an attorney. The program was recognized by the Virginia Bar, so Welke began reading law and concurrently enrolled in Mason to finish her bachelor’s degree.

When she completed the degree in 1982, Welke was encouraged to attend law school, in addition to the reading program, and she enrolled at Mason’s School of Law. Upon completing law reading, she took and passed the bar exam in 1984, a year before earning her JD. Now her former boss is her business partner, and she has an active practice in family law, and wills, estates and trusts at Crickenberger & Associates in Fairfax City.

Beyond the law practice, Welke also has musical interests. She is a professional harpist and sings with choirs and a quartet at her church.

She has served Mason as a member of the Alumni Campaign Steering Committee, co-chair of the Annual Fund Committee, vice president of the Alumni Association, charter member of the Legacy Society and member of the President’s Circle.

“Everyone needs someone who tells her, ‘You can do it!’” she says. “If my educational experiences can serve as an example to others, that would be great.

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