UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources bestows lifetime achievement honor

Portrait of a man
David Fay

A molecular biologist whose research and publication prowess are internationally known has received the Andrew Vanvig Distinguished Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming.

Professor David Fay joined the Department of Molecular Biology in 2001. A developmental geneticist, Fay uses nematodes – tiny roundworms – to analyze gene functions conserved across many species, including humans.

“David Fay already ranks amongst the most accomplished biomedical research faculty that have ever graced the halls here at the University of Wyoming,” wrote department colleagues Dan Levy, Jay Gatlin and department head Peter Thorsness.

The award honors professors with a minimum of 15 years in the college. Vanvig served as head of the Department of Agricultural Economics for 25 years and was a faculty member for 35 years and established the award to honor lifetime accomplishments in teaching, scholarship/creative activity and service.

“I am thrilled to have amazing faculty in our college,” said Barbara Rasco, dean of the college. “Dr. Fay epitomizes everything a faculty colleague should be. He is leading research in a critical area but more importantly, is inspiring the next generation of scientists to be the best that they can be.”

Fay received his Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University in 1995. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and then at the University of Colorado, Boulder, from 1997-2001, before joining UW as an assistant professor.

“David is a superstar at the University of Wyoming and would be a leader at any research university,” noted Daniel Starr, Allen Distinguished Investigator and professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Davis.

Starr, who spent 2013-14 on sabbatical at UW, praised Fay’s scholarly and research activities, research funding, mentoring and service to the field and UW.

“David could have gone to a top-tier major research university after completing his postdoc at the University of Colorado,” he said. “David chose Wyoming because of the lifestyle and the realization he could have a positive impact on the community.”

Fay has had 57 papers published and has brought in more than $9 million in external funding while at UW. As an assistant professor, he helped create the Molecular and Cellular Life Sciences program, the largest interdisciplinary graduate program at UW. He served as MCLS director from 2005-2015.

Since its inception, the MCLS program has trained more than 110 graduate students from across the world, produced more than 45 Ph.D. graduates and contributed to over 70 publications in scientific journals and procurement of more than $20 million in extramural grants, wrote his colleagues.

Natalia Kirienko, a former molecular biology Ph.D. student, and now an assistant professor at Rice University, recalls Fay’s approach to teaching his students.

Fay is careful to ensure students starting in his lab receive the assistance they need, “But as their training proceeds, he takes the training wheels off and allows students to proceed with as little (or as much) of his involvement as they need,” she wrote.

In 2015, Fay accepted the associate director position of the National Institutes of Health-funded Wyoming INBRE (IdeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence) and is director of its research wing. Its goal is to help the state build its biomedical research and education infrastructure.

INBRE has helped support more than 75 individual faculty research programs, more than 100 graduate Ph.D. students and has influenced hundreds of undergraduates at UW and Wyoming’s community college.

In his leadership role, Fay is impacting faculty members and students at UW and across Wyoming’s higher education system, said R. Scott Seville, director of Wyoming INBRE.

“Dr. Fay joined the faculty in 2001 and since that time has established himself as a prolific research, an exceptional administrator, a stellar instructor and a model university citizen and colleague,” he said.

His colleagues in molecular biology noted that within a few years of starting at UW, he was urging them to aim higher, think deeper, write better grants and be better colleagues.

“David was largely responsible for moving our department from a cluster of semi-isolated silos to an integrated group of cooperating scientists,” Thorsness, Levy and Gatlin wrote. “He showed us that we could contribute significantly to the success of each other’s programs by reading and critically evaluating grant applications and manuscripts, participating actively in each other’s student seminars and defenses and sharing resources and equipment.”

Fay’s most recent research funding is a $2.7 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health “In vivo regulation of the extracellular matrix,” which seeks to understand how the process of molting, or outer-skin shedding, is carried out in round worms. Many of the same genes and cellular processes that control molting in worms are also found in humans, where they’ve been implicated in genetic diseases including cancer and organ malfunction, said Fay.

“In addition, a deeper understanding of molting may lead to new strategies to combat parasitic roundworms, which infect hundreds of millions of humans, along with nematodes that negatively impact agriculture through the destruction of crops and animals,” he said.

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