Each year, Saint Leo University alumni across the generations and around the world live out our core values and contribute to their communities, professions, and causes in a variety of ways. The Saint Leo Alumni Association seeks to celebrate the members of our alumni community and pay tribute to those who have reached remarkable goals either professionally or personally. Please join in congratulating the 2021 and 2022 recipients of the Saint Leo University Alumni Awards.
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Gianfranco Pagan ’21 receiving the 2021 Global Service Award.
Roaring Onward recipient Benjamin Larison ’14 with his family.
Alumni 2021 Awards
Joseph Byrne ’74
Christine Gibree ’85
Gianfranco Pagan ’21
Jerry Blash ’14, Mercy Figueroa ’17, Seth Gross ’17, Anthony Santa ’12, Andrew Specht ’17, ’22
Alumni 2022 Awards
Natoy Baker ’11, ’20
Peter Mulry ’67
James Salgado ’07, ’14
Peter Mulry ’67, James Salgado ’07, ’14
Haywood Barnes ’93
Bobrenti “Brent” Patterson ’21, Mohammed “Ammar” Mohart ’17, Benjamin Larison ’14, Krystal Cox ’12, and Allison Baldwin ’15.
Her Saturdays started at 6 a.m. when she would move from room to room, collecting laundry, cleaning the house, and helping with the cooking. She was 8 years old.
“Growing up, I knew life shouldn’t be like this, but I was taught never to complain,” said Saint Leo student Alexandra Joseph, who graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a minor in political science. “There was a lot of guilt growing up. Home was very stressful. I always felt like I was the outsider intervening in someone else’s life. There was no room for complaints. It was very weird, but I was driven to move forward and move ahead.”
Joseph moved from Haiti to Florida when she was 3, following her mother’s death when she was an infant. As her years in Miami droned on while she was living with an aunt and her family, she never complained. She was lucky, they told her, that she had a place to stay.
Even when she suffered physical abuse, and later sexual abuse inflicted by a family member, Joseph stayed silent. And she remained silent when she was forced to give half of her small paycheck to her family, while still purchasing her own belongings and necessities.
Joseph saved $3,000 for a car while working multiple jobs. But her family took that money, and she never purchased the car.
She faced many struggles with her family life and stayed silent until the day she built up the courage to speak to her school’s social worker and her counselor after her family refused to sign loan forms so that she could attend college. Those two helped her change her life. “The counselor told me college was my only way out,” Joseph said.
It hurt, she said. “You work so hard and think you are finally going to get something, then they show you they are not looking out for you.”
Her family kicked her out of the house when she was an 11th-grader because she attended homecoming, Joseph said, and she was forced to leave behind her passport, birth certificate, and green card (permanent U.S. residence card)—documents she still is struggling to replace.
She turned her hurt into strength. “I was able to graduate from high school despite the struggles,” she said. And, this year, she graduated from Saint Leo and is studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
Saint Leo University finally gave her a place to let go of the demons and focus on her bright future, she said.
“Law school was always the goal,” Joseph said. “To be told I wasn’t going to college, I was shell-shocked.”
After moving out of the family house, she saw an advertisement for Saint Leo University. “I finally had to check it out,” Joseph said. “It seemed like a ‘God thing.’ I applied, and I got in, and I didn’t look back. It was the best decision I ever made.”
“I just love that I took that leap of faith and the best things are still to come. Saint Leo was the giant change in my life. People paid attention to me. A lot of people advocated for me. If I was having a bad day, people noticed and would ask how I was doing. So I began to practice advocating for myself.”
She spent many sleepless nights at Saint Jude Chapel on campus. “I suffered from insomnia, but if I was going to be up, I wanted to be in a place that gives off energy, that is community and passion,” Joseph said. And that was the campus chapel.
She found the church to be a place to shed her problems and, “I could remember what I had overcome.”
Joseph won the 2020 Scholarship America Dream Award during her sophomore year that paid for her junior- and senior-year tuition. She also became a resident assistant in 2020, which enabled her to continue living year-round in the university residence hall with less financial burden.
During the Spring Semester, she completed an internship with a private defense attorney in Miami. “I am overwhelmed, but I know exactly what I want to be,” Joseph said. “No matter which field of law I decide on, I know I will give the best representation, no matter what it is.”
Even while pursuing her degree, Joseph has made an impact in and outside of the Saint Leo University community. She is one of the co-authors of the book Women Breathe Again, which shares testimonial of women overcoming obstacles; chair of the multicultural and diversity committee of Campus Activities Board (CAB); and a LEAD Scholar, a program for those who wish to develop strong leadership skills. She also created and hosted a program, The Dream Room, for WLSL-FM, 92.5, the university’s radio station. Her goal was to create a safe place in which students could listen to peers discuss issues and events that affect them.
Saint Leo proved to be a perfect fit, Joseph said, offering her support and opportunities. “The first two years were hard because it is expensive. But it helped shape me as a person. Now, I get to advocate for others.”
Several months ago, Kevin Szafran scooped up a soil sample from an apartment complex in Dade City, FL. Little did he know this dirt would contain a bacteriophage to be included in a global database.
Szafran, who graduated from the university in May 2022, had the opportunity to participate in the Science Education Alliance (SEA) Phages program, a project the university joined several years ago. Since 2008, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Pittsburgh have collaborated to facilitate this bacteriophage research initiative for biology students attending more than 150 colleges and universities. Szafran, a biology major focusing on biomedical science, has been part of the two classes specific to phage discovery and analysis.
“We had to collect three environmental samples from three different locations,” Szafran said of the project. “The phage I discovered was from the soil of a flowerbed with fertilizer. I collected it the day after it had rained, so it was moist and seemed like a viable location. For me, only one out of my three samples contained a phage.”
Szafran explained the steps following the sample collection.
“We then go through rounds of amplifying, purifying, and isolating a bacteriophage, which is essentially a virus that infects a bacterial host,” he said. “We send off the sample to the University of Pittsburgh for further analysis in which they sequence the genome to determine which family of bacteriophage it belongs to.”
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This image shows the dimension of the capsid and tail of the phage. It was produced using electron microscopy.
Some phages can cause benign bacteria to become pathogenic (disease-producing) by transferring in pathogenic genes. Other phages use the bacteria as a host to make more viruses before killing them.
The two Saint Leo courses focused on practical research in the use of bacteriophages are BIO 100: Intro to Research – Phage Hunters and BIO 200: Phages II. In addition, a third course related to phages was introduced to biology students in the 2021-2022 academic year. In BIO 300: SEA-Genes, students clone phage genes and express their proteins, ultimately trying to assign a function to those genes.
Szafran named the phage he discovered “Upsilon” in recognition of Saint Leo’s Upsilon Theta chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity to which he belongs.
“Jovita” is a phage discovered by junior Gabby Fonseca. She took her sample from an area near a tree stump on the banks of Lake Jovita at University Campus. Among the other Saint Leo phages are “BlueRugrat,” found by Kaishon Showers, and “Katzastrophic” found by Emily Katz.
“It has been a rewarding experience,” Szafran said. “The work I’ve put into this and getting my name on a nationally recognized website is definitely an amazing opportunity. Publications are the epitome of research and are so instrumental in helping me pursue further education.”
Dr. Iain Duffy, an associate professor of biology in the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, brought the courses to the university four years ago. Duffy teaches all three classes related to phage discovery and analysis.
“Only a small number of phages have been discovered, but how they function has yet to be determined in many cases,” Duffy explained. “These are not your typical college classes. This is real research being done on viruses that nobody has ever seen before. Plus, we have many freshmen and sophomores taking these courses, giving them a leg up as they advance in the program.”
Along with hands-on experiential learning, students’ names are published on a dedicated database webpage hosted on the PhagesDB website. They also may present their findings at the national SEA Symposium and the Florida Academy of Sciences’ annual conference, as well as during Saint Leo’s Academic Excellence Day.
According to Duffy, numerous Saint Leo graduates have applied their experience with this project to their careers. Several have gone on to work at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL. A few alumni now work in the cancer center’s cell therapy lab where they are helping to develop cancer treatments, while others have participated in the SPARK internship program at Moffitt.
“The students are becoming much more confident in their lab techniques and are using this experience in their careers,” Duffy said of completing the phage classes.
As for Szafran’s future plans, his goal is to attend medical school and become a physician, potentially specializing in cardiology.