A Star in the Lab and the Classroom

Linda Columbus
UVA chemist and Cottrell Scholar Linda Columbus is one of two members of the Cottrell community to receive its 2023 STAR Award for their continued impact on research and STEM education in the United States.
Photo by Molly Angevine

This week, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a nonprofit organization that has funded the early work of 40 Nobel Prize-winning scientists, awarded a 2023 Cottrell STAR (Science Teaching and Research) Award to UVA professor of chemistry, molecular biology and biological physics to Linda Columbus.


As a chemist with the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Department of Chemistry, Columbus is an internationally recognized scholar whose leading research program in biophysical chemistry is focused on the membrane proteins that are the gatekeepers of living cells and facilitate a number of cellular processes.  Much like the doors and windows of a room, membrane proteins mediate the transfer of information and molecules across cell walls, which is important for healthy cellular function and reproduction as well as disease prevention.  Her research is an important part of medical science's efforts to create more effective medications and better ways to administer them.


As a teacher, she has championed efforts to redesign the undergraduate curriculum in Chemistry at UVA to make it more equitable and more approachable for students from a wider range of disciplines and backgrounds.  Her redesign of introductory courses for the Department of Chemistry has decreased the performance gaps between first-generation and continuing generations, underrepresented minorities and majorities and transfer and four-year students from 15-20% to less than 2%, and her efforts have resulted in her appointment as director of a new UVA program intended to empower faculty at the University to explore new ways to teach undergraduate courses in a variety of STEM disciplines.


In 2010, Columbus was named a Cottrell Scholar by the RSCA, which is a prestigious honor recognizing early-career faculty for their excellence in research and teaching, and the STAR award recognizes the continued impact of select members of the community of Cottrell honorees.


“Cottrell Scholars are a remarkable community of academic leaders whose contributions to science and society go far beyond their own campuses.  As they have advanced in their careers, these awardees have leveraged their skills and influence toward the greater good,” RCSA President & CEO Daniel Linzer said of this year’s two STAR Award winners, which include Columbus and  T. Daniel Crawford, a chemist at Virginia Tech.


The award includes a cash prize of $5,000 and will be presented at the 2023 Cottrell Scholar Conference to be held July 19-21, 2023, in Tucson, Arizona. Columbus will speak at the event will also play a role in mentoring and advising early-career Cottrell Scholars.


“I am really appreciative of the people who nominated me for this award and wrote supporting letters. I am also deeply appreciative of the amazing trainees and faculty that I get to work with to conduct my research and redesign STEM student learning and success,” Columbus said. “The award means a lot to me, and I am honored to receive the recognition. To have my research and teaching acknowledged nationally reflects the passion and dedication that I (and the people I get to work with) have for scientific research and the training of the next generation of scientists.”


“The chemistry department is proud of Dr. Columbus’ research accomplishments in pushing methods to understand membrane proteins and also her leadership contributions, both in the field of biophysics and also at the university level,” said Jill Venton, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Virginia.  “This type of award shows the quality of the chemistry faculty and the prominence of their work, and we are thankful that Professor Columbus is being recognized for her research and leadership excellence.”