During the Homecoming Luncheon on Feb. 9, 2019, the University of Montevallo National Alumni Association bestowed its most prestigious award, the Distinguished Alumnus Award, to Dr. Richard D. Cummings, world renowned researcher.
Cummings currently works as the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Harvard Medical School in Boston. He is also the director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Glycoscience.
“I knew Rick as a student (he was a year ahead of me in class, and light years ahead of me in knowledge!) He was a very committed student whose intellectual and academic demeanor and prowess impressed fellow students and UM faculty alike,” one of his nominators said. “He was then, and remains now, a person who exhibits a spirit of humility and humanity as a kind and generous man.”
Cummings earned his bachelor’s degree with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry from Montevallo in 1974. He, then, attended the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he received his Ph.D. in biology/biochemistry. He conducted his post-doctoral fellowship in hematology/oncology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
His academic career first led him to the University of Georgia where he was quickly promoted to professor and associate director of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. In 1992, Cummings accepted a position as the Ed Miller Endowed Chair in Molecular Biology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. While there, he founded the Oklahoma Center for Medical Glycobiology. In 2006, he moved to Emory University School of Medicine as the chair of the Department of Biochemistry, where he also founded the Glycomics Center.
In his current position at BIDMC, he serves as the vice-chair of basic and translational research, chair of the Research Council, and associate director for Drug Discovery and Translational Research. As of 2018, Cummings is also the scientific director of the Feihe Nutrition Laboratory and director of the Cancer Glycomics Program within the Cancer Research Institute.
With his broad and deep expertise in the biomedical sciences, Cummings is one of the country’s leading biological chemists. He is a co-founder, among other well-known scientists, of the fields of glycomics and glycobiology. Cummings has more than 300 peer-reviewed publications in the field, along with more than 70 review articles, dozens of book chapters and is the co-editor of the first textbook in glycobiology Essentials of Glycobiology, now in its 3rd edition.
This relatively new area is rapidly gaining interest due to the discovery that glycans, or sugars play a role in all aspects of biology, health and disease. This has led to the development of new drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines. His work impacts many areas including cancer biology, innate and adaptive immunity, thrombosis and hemostasis, nutrition and infectious diseases.
His distinguished career alone qualifies Cummings for this award. However, he continues to pay it forward. UM students are given the opportunity to conduct research with him in his lab through an internship program he established.
“I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Cummings, and his willingness to support and encourage the intellectual growth of a Montevallo student is indicative of the spirit of service that Montevallo instills within its students,” said a former UM intern and nominator.