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Alexander Winnett is receiving the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence and the 29 Who Shine Award. (Photo by Harry Brett)
May 16, 2016

Biochemistry Student Alexander Winnett Receives UMass Boston’s JFK Award

  • Boston
Whitman Native Also Honored as 29 Who Shine Award Winner

When UMass Boston senior Alexander Winnett isn’t in a laboratory researching new ways to treat infectious diseases, you might find him volunteering at a drug rehabilitation center or offering tax help to elderly and disadvantaged citizens.

He does this all while working to put himself through college.

“Alex is the quintessential UMass Boston student,” Honors College Dean Rajini Srikanth said.

Chancellor J. Keith Motley announced this week that Winnett, a 22-year-old Whitman native, is receiving two distinguished awards: the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence, the highest honor given to UMass Boston graduates, and the Massachusetts Department of Education’s 29 Who Shine Award. He is the first student to receive both awards in university history.

The JFK award is given to the graduating senior who best exemplifies academic excellence, commitment to service, and good citizenship. Winners receive a $1,000 honorarium, a bust of John F. Kennedy, and the opportunity to speak at their commencement ceremony.

Winnett will graduate at the TD Garden May 27 with a degree in biochemistry, and minor in mathematics.

He plans to attend a combined MD-PhD program after graduating, with the hopes of becoming a physician-scientist, likely specializing in critical care medicine and infectious disease research, developing life-saving cures. He will also pursue medical research in Central and South America.

Winnett, second from right, received his 29 Who Shine Award at a May 9 ceremony at the State House.

Winnett has been excited about the scientific world since he was a kid, participating in Destination Imagination, a program that allows K-12 students to explore STEM, service learning, and fine arts through creative activities.

But at UMass Boston, he discovered that he could merge his interest in microbes with a desire to help others. As a student in the Honors College, Winnett has taken classes that look at science through the lens of political, public health, and social issues. He has also gravitated toward research projects that will have positive impacts on people's everyday lives.

“If you’re just doing science at the microscopic level, you can lose sight of who it’s going to help. I like to do a mix of hardcore science and math . . . but also things that will remind me of why I’m doing it,” Winnett said.

Winnett has also applied his analytical mind to social issues. He volunteers with the Boston Medical Reserve Corps and on the Hazardous Material response team at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also holds IRS certification and assists low-income and elderly citizens in Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Dorchester with pro bono preparation of their taxes.

Winnett served as president of the UMass Boston chapter of Phi Delta Epsilon, an international premedical fraternity. He worked in the Laboratory of Nanomedicine and Biomaterials at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, spent a summer researching drug resistant bacteria in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 18 months as a preclinical research intern at Visterra Inc., and is currently completing his thesis in a genomics laboratory at UMass Boston.

“He’s smart like a lot of other students here, but he’s also very motivated. He finds things that he’s interested in and he learns about them,” said Rick Kesseli, chair of the biology department and Winnett’s research advisor.

Winnett says that his mentors at UMass Boston have helped him find his path.

"The decision to come here is probably the best decision I've ever made. . . It’s been an amazing four years,” he said.