Kirill Afonin, Margaret Quinlan Honored for Research and Mentoring Excellence

Award winners pose with plaques
Thursday, March 16, 2023

Charlotte faculty members Kirill Afonin and Margaret Quinlan are the 2023 recipients of the First Citizens Bank Scholars Medal and the Harshini V. de Silva Graduate Mentor Award, respectively. They were honored at a faculty awards ceremony March 7.

"One of the most significant accomplishments for us over the past few years has been the development of 'Shaping What’s Next,' our strategic plan. The plan sets a bold path as an emerging top-tier research university that is eager to meet new challenges," said Chancellor Sharon L. Gaber. "Faculty are crucial to keeping this momentum going and making sure we are successful, as we serve our region and provide a top-quality education for all students. The professors who are being recognized this evening illustrate this work, through their internationally known research and their outstanding mentoring of graduate students."

First Citizens Bank Scholars Medal recognizes research excellence

Afonin, who is a professor of chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, is a world-renowned leader in RNA (ribonucleic acid) nanotechnology, an area that investigates how RNA can be programmed to assemble into desired shapes and sizes for applications in therapeutics, biosensors and molecular electronics. 

“Dr. Afonin’s contributions to science and education is the epitome of outstanding scholarship and creativity; his research inspires students and collaborators for whom he serves as a role model,” said Marina Dobrovolskaia, director of operations for the Nanotechnology Lab and head of the Immunology Section at the National Cancer Institute. “His work has led to several breakthroughs that are now being utilized by other research teams, both domestic and international.” 

Afonin, who has secured more than $4.6 million in funding to support his research, is a recipient of two NIH Fellows Awards for Research Excellence, two NIH R01s and several other NIH and NSF-sponsored awards. He is also one of two UNC Charlotte faculty members to ever receive a prestigious NIH Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award or MIRA award.

“Every day, the faculty, staff and students of UNC Charlotte are making significant, lasting contributions that embrace the economic, cultural and civic fabric of our region,” said Kristi Stevenson, senior vice president and manager of retail banking at First Citizens Bank. “[Dr. Afonin] demonstrates all these qualities and more. His scholarship is truly impacting and influencing scholars, students and the community.

Afonin serves as the founding council member and vice president of the International Society of RNA Nanotechnology and Nanomedicine. Prior to UNC Charlotte, he served as a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute, NIH, where he established and managed an experimental branch within the Computational RNA Structure Group. He began his tenure-track appointment at UNC Charlotte in 2015.

“I am very proud of Dr. Afonin and the excellent work he does for our students,” said Provost Alicia L. Bertone. “He leads by example and is an inspiration to his students and faculty colleagues across the University.” 

Afonin completed a doctorate in photochemistry from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in chemistry from Saint Petersburg University. In addition, he earned a graduate certificate in bioinformatics, proteomics/genomics at the University of California Santa Barbara, where he finished a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry and biochemistry.

For 36 years, the First Citizens Bank Scholars Medal has shined a spotlight on the University and the accomplishments of its faculty and their impact in the local community, throughout the state, across the country and around the world. 

de Silva Award honors graduate-level mentoring

Quinlan, professor of communication studies and director of the health and medical humanities interdisciplinary program in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, is an exceptional graduate mentor who has worked to enhance graduate student success at UNC Charlotte since her arrival in 2009.

“Dr. Margaret Quinlan is a catalyst to graduate students’ progress.” said Pinku Mukherjee, interim associate provost and dean of the Graduate School. “She makes personal connections with her students and provides individualized support. Most importantly, she is an empowering, caring and collaborative mentor.”

Quinlan’s research examines the nexus of public perceptions of medicine, science and technology, both historically and presently. She also investigates the role communication plays in public understandings of medical expertise, illness and health. 

“Dr. Quinlan’s mentoring is unique not only for its breadth, but also for its impact,” said Daniel Grano, professor and chair of UNC Charlotte’s Department of Communication Studies. “Her approach to mentoring is empowering, caring, non-hierarchical and collaborative.” 

As a mentor, Quinlan has published 45 double-blind peer-reviewed journal articles; 13 in collaboration with graduate students, who served as lead authors on eight publications. In addition, she published two book chapters with graduate students and co-authored six competitively selected conference papers. Quinlan also mentors graduate students in community-engaged scholarship. She co-authors a monthly column in Psychology Today, produces research translations for blogs and magazines and is regularly interviewed on local, regional and national media. Through these experiences, Quinlan has developed expertise in publicizing research and has passed this knowledge along through student collaborations. 

“I am very proud of Dr. Quinlan and the excellent work she does in mentoring our graduate students,” said Provost Bertone. “She truly sets an example, provides guidance and strikes that delicate balance between pushing someone to the limit of their potential and coming alongside them with an encouraging word.”

Quinlan completed a doctorate in health and organizational communication from Ohio University and a master's degree in instructional and interpersonal communication from Illinois State University; her bachelor’s degree in psychology and special education is from Marist College.

The Harshini V. de Silva Graduate Mentor Award honors its namesake, an exceptional teacher, brilliant scholar and researcher and devoted servant of her profession and community. The award is given annually to the faculty member whose commitment to students, research and scholarly inquiry most closely exemplifies the spirit of de Silva.