Teaching & Learning

USU Science Valedictorian Says 'Form Ever Follows Function'

Aggie scholar Porter Ellis reflects on undergrad journey; plans for graduate studies

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

College of Science Valedictorian Porter Ellis conducts structural biology research in the microbial pathogenesis lab of faculty mentor Nick Dickenson in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He will pursue graduate studies at Duke University.

The undergraduate journey is often a watershed experience in which an individual asks deep questions, revs up “adulting” tasks and, if fortunate, establishes lifelong friendships.

Like other Aggies graduating this spring, Utah State University scholar Porter Ellis’ academic journey bears the added unique yet shared experience of navigating a college experience during a global pandemic.

Ellis, who is the USU College of Science’s 2022 valedictorian, has garnered a number of top academic awards during his undergraduate career, including the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s Van Orden Award in both Physical Chemistry and Biochemistry.

In addition, he’s a recipient of the Irving Condie Frost Award in Organic Chemistry, as well as a multiple-time recipient of the university’s A-Pin academic award. Beyond USU, Ellis received the American Chemical Society Undergraduate Award in Physical Chemistry from the ACS Rocky Mountain Section.

Beyond his own academic achievements, Ellis has excelled in teaching and research. He was an Undergraduate Teaching Fellow and supplemental instructor for eight courses over three years. His efforts led to his designation as the college’s Undergraduate Teaching Fellow of the Year in 2021.

Ellis’s teaching service took on an added sense of urgency as Utah State moved to remote learning in 2020 and required continued vigilance as Aggies returned to in-person learning the following year.

“I was a team lead in Utah State’s Supplemental Instructor program, which included training and directing other supplemental instructors,” he says. “During that time, I also represented the SI program as a delegate for a regional student affairs conference, where I learned how to better support USU’s students during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Acquiring those skills including listening to student concerns while also encouraging scholars to follow recommended safety protocols. In addition to teaching a broad range of formidable chemistry and biochemistry course material, Ellis learned how to maintain a positive classroom environment, motivate fellow Aggies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and provide encouragement during challenging semesters.

“My experiences in teaching underpin a broader motivation to establish a career in higher education, where I can have a meaningful impact on the lives of students,” he says. “I also hope to foster an environment of inclusivity, where individuals of all backgrounds can thrive.”

Serving as a teacher and in student affairs leadership, Ellis says, were among the most enriching opportunities he experienced at Utah State. But near the top of that list was also participation in research, during which he delved into structural biology research in the microbial pathogenesis lab of faculty mentor Nick Dickenson, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Ellis’s approach to research is based on an axiom credited to American architect and innovative skyscraper designer Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924), who said “form follows function.”

“‘Form ever follows function’ has come to define my central intellectual curiosity,” says Ellis, who accomplished a number of notable research milestones during his undergrad years. “That phrase serves as my motivation to pursue doctoral work in the field of structural biology and biophysics.”

The Farr West, Utah native was awarded a USU Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grant in 2021, which supported his project, “Structural and Biophysical Kinetic Characterization of YscN.”

“I specifically worked with the YscN homolog from the bacterium Yersinia pestis,” Ellis says. “Yersinia pestis is the causative agent of bubonic plague in humans, and YscN is essential to its virulence.”

Ellis presented his project at USU’s 2021 Hansen Life Sciences Retreat and was one of two undergraduate recipients of the gathering’s top presentation award. The other recipient, incidentally, was fellow biochemist and Ellis’s significant other, Arianna Towne. Towne, a College of Science Dean’s Scholar, also graduates this spring. She and Ellis have both been accepted for graduate studies at Duke University, where they’ll begin their respective programs this fall.

“In my graduate studies, I hope to interrogate the structure-function space to better understand the dynamic choreography of biomolecular systems and complex life,” says Ellis, who graduated as salutatorian from Utah’s Fremont High School in 2018 and entered USU on a Presidential Scholarship. “Beyond graduate school, I hope to realize the intersection of my two-fold passion for structural biology and teaching in a career as a research professor and academic professor.”


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Porter Ellis


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