Chemistry Duo Wins Bhakta Rath Research Award

Bhakta Rath Main
Bhakta Rath Main
The winners of the Bhakta Rath Research Award are Melanie Talaga and Tarun Dam.

Congratulations to Melanie Talaga and Tarun Dam for winning the 2016 Bhakta Rath Award. The award is given to an exceptional doctoral student and advisor pair at Michigan Technological University making a difference with their research.


Most people don’t sugarcoat their research. But Talaga’s work in glycobiology comes that way naturally. The molecules she studies are what her advisor, Dam, calls “candy-coated” proteins.

The sugary molecules are common in people’s bodies, playing important roles in infection, immunity, and they are biomarkers for a number of different cancers. Talaga and Dam specifically look at the molecular behavior of these glycoproteins. In other words, they study how the proteins act and respond to other molecules and affect cell-cell interactions.

“My dissertation research focused on using sophisticated biophysical techniques to understand how molecules behave,” Talaga says, explaining the behavior is difficult to detect. “This research lays the foundation for future improvements for cancer detection and drug design.”

The team’s research is a body of work that includes three papers. One shows that current thyroid cancer assays may have inaccurate readings. The second advances a concept that may potentially streamline drug development and the third focuses on the team’s methodology that could help expose apparently overlooked molecular events.

"No discovery is final—discovery is a journey rather than a destination. As our technology becomes more sophisticated everyday, tomorrow will certainly add more to today's discovery."Tarun Dam
Bhakta Rath Winners Melanie Talaga and Tarun Dam
Enthusiasm is the secret ingredient in the Mechanistic Glycobiology Lab.

Where Good Research and Teaching Meet

The key to successful research, Dam says, is mentoring.

“We both are very much connected to our scientific projects; they are inseparable parts of our lives,” he says, adding that collaboration and communication—as much as the actual chemistry—defines the Mechanistic Glycobiology Lab’s effectiveness. “It is easy to work with Talaga because she is always willing to work hard to be on the same page with me.”

 For her part, Talaga says her graduate experience went far beyond her expectations and that she didn’t realize pursuing a doctoral degree could be so exciting. She attributes this to Dam’s enthusiasm. 

"Dam has a contagious passion for science that has rubbed off on me—the research doesn't feel like work when you enjoy what you are doing and look forward to coming to lab each day."Melanie Talaga

Talaga and Dam not only set a high bar for their glycobiology research, but also their teaching, says Bruce Seely, the dean of the College of Science and Arts. He points out that Dam won the Exceptional Graduate Faculty Mentor Award from the graduate student government this spring, as well as the Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award last year.

“Every person we hire must be an effective teacher and scholar,” Seely says, explaining that Dam has “demonstrated a deft touch in guiding students.”

Bhakta Rath Winners Melanie Talaga and Tarun Dam
Melanie Talaga has helped Tarun Dam lead the graduate and undergraduate researchers in the lab.

He adds that those efforts pay off with exceptional students like Talaga who want to take their research to the next level. Talaga—who has earned nearly ten research awards and fellowships of her own in addition to several teaching awards as a T.A.—says she would like to stay in academia and continue teaching.

Seely sees dual benefits in the pair’s work. Their research in applying cutting edge knowledge of complex chemical mechanisms inspires creative solutions for problems with cancer assays and drug design. And, through initiating undergraduates in their lab and offering good courses, Talaga and Dam are fostering the next generation of chemists. For all this work, they are well recognized with the Bhakta Rath Research Award.

"Linking research and teaching is the key to being a good mentor."Bruce Seely


Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.