Carla Finkielstein, director of the Molecular Diagnostics Lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, has been recognized with the Ut Prosim Scholar Award – the university’s top honor for faculty – for her for her work to improve COVID-19 testing efficiency and effectiveness in support of both Virginia Tech and local health districts and for her service to humanity.

The university’s Board of Visitors established the Ut Prosim Scholar Award in 2016 to recognize singular instances of the application of scholarship in truly extraordinary service to humanity.

“Dr. Finkielstein’s work made it possible for Virginia Tech to detect and trace COVID infections early in the pandemic, providing a reliable testing resource that made it possible to continue university operations while keeping our campus and community safe,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “Her innovative leadership and commitment to service exemplify the spirit of an Ut Prosim Scholar.” 

Finkielstein, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and an award-winning cancer researcher, anticipated the limitations of existing methods for testing the novel coronavirus and enlisted a team to develop an innovative method that would more accurately, reliably, and rapidly detect the virus and help mitigate its spread, according to the resolution approved at the BOV’s March meeting.

“Dr. Finkielstein and her team designed new testing primers that detected three genes of the virus in lieu of the single gene detected by the CDC testing kit, making it possible both to provide more accurate results and detect various mutations of COVID-19, which has become instrumental for both the university community and local health districts as new strains are being discovered,” the resolution stated.

Finkielstein leads Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 lab analysis process in collaboration with Schiffert Health Center. The lab has run over 110,000 tests, 40 percent of which were completed for local health districts outside of the university community.

As part of the award, Finkielstein and her team will receive $250,000 in funding over five years for operational support of her research.

Finkielstein is a founding member of the Virginia Tech Cancer Research Alliance – a cohort of more than 25 research teams studying brain, breast, colon, lung, liver, and bone cancers in humans and animals.

She joined Virginia Tech’s faculty as an assistant professor in the College of Science’s Department of Biology in 2005. Since then, she has trained more than 120 high school and undergraduate students, and has mentored numerous master’s and doctoral students at Virginia Tech. In July 2020 she moved her research program and laboratory to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

Finkielstein received her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and her doctoral degree in molecular biology from the University of Buenos Aires. She was a research associate at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center’s School of Medicine, where she worked at the interface of molecular and structural biology to study the mechanisms responsible for cellular DNA replication and cell division.

Finkielstein has received numerous awards, including the Virginia Academy of Science’s 2019 Shelton Horsley Research Award and 2017 Mary Louise Olds Andrews Cancer Award; the Molecular Biology Society of Japan Research Award; an Appalachian Community Cancer Network Scholarship; an American Association for Cancer Research Minority Scholar Award in Cancer Research; a National Breast Cancer Coalition Scholarship; and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Finkielstein was one of two Virginia Tech researchers honored with the Ut Prosim Scholar Award this spring. Linsey Marr, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was also recognized for her research to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and effectively educate the public on safety protocols during the pandemic.

The inaugural Ut Prosim Scholar Award in 2016 was conferred to Professor Marc Edwards and Mona Hanna-Attisha, two of the key individuals who exposed widespread lead in water contamination in Flint, Michigan.