Distinguished Mentor Award

Excellent mentoring involves a fine balance between guiding and letting go. Daniel Conrad, Ph.D., Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and recipient of the 2011 Distinguished Mentor Award, has clearly mastered that balance.

“A good mentor is both kind and strong; friend and leader,” states Sarah Norton, M.S., Ph.D., Candidate. “As I have progressed, I always know Dr. Conrad will be there when I need him, yet he recognizes that I no longer need him to help me with everything I do.”

Jamie L. Sturgill, Ph.D., agrees, “Dr. Conrad allowed me the creative freedom I so desperately desired in a research setting while providing me with the necessary guidance required for a successful dissertation project.”

Dr. Conrad joined the MCV faculty as Assistant Professor in 1978 after completing a NIH postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Medicine. He moved to Johns Hopkins in 1981 and returned to VCU as Professor of Microbiology in 1989. Dr. Conrad has authored over 130 peer-reviewed journal articles, earned continuous NIH funding for his research on IgE receptors, and taught students in medicine and dental hygiene, all while supervising students at all levels in his lab. Dr. Conrad makes an exceptional impact on the students in his laboratory through his good humor, unending support and enthusiasm, and careful guidance.

As doctoral student Sheinei Saleem, explains, “One of his mentoring philosophies and favorite lines is, ‘You are the expert, not me.'” The respect and encouragement this approach conveys is greatly appreciated by students. David Gibb, M.D./Ph.D. student, recalls, “Dr. Conrad’s sincere enthusiasm for progress of my research reinforced my own confidence and motivation. On countless occasions, he would stay late to review results of an experiment or call me for status updates…Somehow, although he was the boss, it felt like we were a team.”

Learning to network and interact with other researchers is an important skill necessary for building a successful research program. Dr. Conrad offers his students career-building opportunities to participate in presentations and grant applications and often funds his students’ travel to national meetings while he stays at home. Former student Jill W. Ford, Ph.D., now Postdoctoral Fellow, David H. Smith Center for Vaccine Biology and Immunology, University of Rochester Medical Center, recalls, “When he was hosting a scientist, he frequently invited me to join them for dinner so that I could discuss my research and further develop my networking skills. He also encouraged me to foster collaborations with other investigators, both at VCU and outside of the university. This resulted in several fruitful publications for me, including one high impact co-first author publication at Nature Immunology.”

Dr. Conrad’s influence continues once his students graduate and move on to developing careers of their own. As former student Dania Rabah, Ph.D., currently Senior Scientist and Head of Immunopharmacology for Biogen Idec explains, “Although I have had a number of great mentors since my Ph.D. years, Dr. Conrad is still the only person I go to for advice on career choices, scientific questions or any sort of advice.”

Joel Matthews, Ph.D., now in a research fellowship at Harvard School of Public Health, echoes this experience. “As I move on with my career, with the goal of running my own laboratory, I can see myself saying, ‘What would Dr. Conrad have done in this situation?’ I will be forever grateful for his friendship and his example.”

Dr. Conrad is the first faculty member to receive the same Teaching Excellence Award twice; he also received the Distinguished Mentor Award in 2001. The field of microbiology and immunology and the School of Medicine have benefitted from another ten years of Dr. Conrad’s dedication to supporting his graduate students personally and professionally through their years of training and professional practice.