Victor Cornejo Receives Charles H. Turner Award for Postdoctoral Studies in Biological Sciences

Thursday, December 2, 2021 - 15:00
Old photograph of Charles H Turner

The Biological Sciences department is delighted to announce that postdoctoral researcher Victor Cornejo has been awarded the newly-established Charles H. Turner Award for Postdoctoral Studies in Biological Sciences. This Award recognizes outstanding work in any field of biology performed here in our Department by a current or recently departed (<1 year) Postdoctoral Fellow and/or Associate Research Scientist. 

The Award is named in honor of Charles H. Turner (1867–1923), an outstanding scientist who did ground-breaking work in what was then known as zoology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Turner, whose father worked as a custodian and whose mother was a nurse, was the first Black student to receive a graduate degree at the University of Cincinnati, and likely the first to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He is widely recognized as a pioneer in animal cognition and the study of insect behaviorparticularly the behavior of bees and ants. Turner discovered, among other things, that insects can hear and are able to learn. He famously demonstrated that honey bees have color vision and can recognize patterns, and he provided the first demonstration of Pavlovian conditioning in an insect.

Because of his era’s prevailing racism, Turner did much of his innovative research without access to academic libraries, research assistants, or laboratory space. After receiving his PhD in 1907, Turner was unable to secure a faculty position. After being denied a position at the University of Chicago, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he taught at Sumner High School, a secondary school for Black students, until just a few months before his death in 1922. He was only 56 years old. Many of his trailblazing experiments were conducted while he eked out a living at Sumner, where he was poorly paid and overworked. In St. Louis, Turner was also a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and played a key role in organizing social services for the area’s Black residents.

“I'm tremendously thrilled to receive the Charles H Turner Award,” said Cornejo. “I really appreciate this honor, particularly in the name of an outstanding scientist, who contributed to science with enormous passion and meticulousness. Not only an exceptional scientist, but also an activist for Civil Rights. Really a model to follow as a scholar and citizen.”

A postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. Rafael Yuste, Cornejo studies the physiology of synapses. Using a two-photon microscope and state-of-the-art fluorescent voltage sensors to measure voltage in dendritic spines in the cortex of living mice, Cornejo has measured synaptic potentials and confirmed that dendritic spines behave as electrical compartments, a key feature of mammalian synapses.

Cornejo will present his award-winning work in the Departmental Seminar Series on October 17, 2022. For this event, Dr. Charles Abramson from Oklahoma State University has kindly agreed to present an introduction to the exceptional life and work of Charles H. Turner.

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