Professor and Biology Department Chairman Welkin Johnson⁠—who has established himself as a dedicated and respected teacher, researcher, mentor, and colleague since he joined the faculty 11 years ago⁠—is this year's recipient of BC's Saint Robert Bellarmine, S.J., Award.

Presented at Commencement by University President William P. Leahy, S.J., the award recognizes a distinguished faculty member whose significant contributions have consistently and purposefully advanced the mission of Boston College. It is named for Saint Robert Bellarmine, S.J., an Italian cardinal and one of the leading figures in the Counter-Reformation.

Welkin Johnson

Welkin Johnson (Lee Pellegrini)

“Welkin Johnson has played an indispensable role in helping lead Boston College through the pandemic over the past five semesters,” said Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley. “Across his 11 years at the University, he has worked tirelessly to advance the Biology Department and to engage with colleagues from across campus in service of our distinctive mission. His scholarship, teaching, and service all continue to open new frontiers for mission-aligned collaboration.”

Johnson—whose research involves the study of how viruses adapt to their hosts through the lens of genetics—helped lead the implementation of BC’s COVID-19 safety strategy, and was responsible for establishing a certified SARS-CoV- 2 testing laboratory at the University.

 "I’m very grateful for this honor, and I’m humbled when I consider the achievements and lasting contributions to the University of the previous recipients,” said Johnson. “By comparison, the impact of my own contributions is likely to be transitory, and these are obviously the product of the unusual situation imposed upon all of us by the COVID-19 pandemic.

 “I would like my students and colleagues to know that I considered it a privilege to use my training and expertise to give something back to the University, and that I’m grateful to be part of a community that upheld its commitment to its students by working together, taking risks, and investing so much in time and resources to preserve, as much as possible, an authentic college experience in the face of this unexpected and unpredictable global crisis," he added.

Johnson’s research interests include retroviruses, primate lentiviruses (HIV and SIV), and co-evolution of viruses and their hosts. His lab comprises approximately 15 scientists at all levels of experience, including junior faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, research technicians, and undergraduates. Their work combines traditional, molecular virology with evolutionary genetics, to study how viruses adapt to their hosts and better understand how virus evolution is influenced by genetic variation both within host populations (polymorphism, and between host species (divergence).

Johnson teaches both formally in the classroom and informally in the lab. “Both are equally important to me,” he said. “In my lab, I train graduate students in our Ph.D. program and mentor undergraduate students seeking authentic research experience. In the classroom, I've taught courses in virology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and I co-created and co-taught a pair of Enduring Questions courses with my friend and colleague from the English Department, [Professor] Dayton Haskin.”

Johnson, who has been Biology chair since 2015, has 25 years of experience researching retroviruses, including HIV, SIV, and the other AIDS-causing lentiviruses. He also is a veteran reviewer of grants and contracts for the National Institutes of Health, as well as for the University of California AIDS Research Program and a variety of other foundations. He has organized multiple international meetings, serves on the editorial review boards of several journals, chairs the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses retrovirus section, and is an academic editor for the journal PLoS One.

Previous recipients of the Bellarmine Award are Thomas F. Rattigan Professor of English Mary Crane and Professor of Philosophy Patrick Byrne.

Rosanne Pellegrini | University Communications | May 2022