5 questions with… Emmitt Jolly, researcher and Tuskegee University’s College of Arts and Sciences 2020 Most Distinguished Alumni Awardee

Emmitt Jolly holding a plaque
Emmitt Jolly with his plaque for winning Tuskegee University’s College of Arts and Sciences 2020 Most Distinguished Alumni Award

Emmitt Jolly, an associate professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University, grew up in Alabama, just 20 miles from Tuskegee University. As a teenager, he worked at a farm in sweltering heat and, when that work ended, cleaned bathrooms and bussed tables at a local truck stop.

Jolly’s fortunes suddenly reversed when his high school counselor recognized his aptitude for science and introduced him to a professor of biology at Tuskegee University. Jolly was invited to join a summer youth program that placed him in a cytogenetics laboratory, where the young man flourished. When it came time to select a university, Jolly chose Tuskegee. He graduated in 1996 with a Bachelor of Science in biology.

In a virtual ceremony on Oct. 23, Jolly received one of that university’s highest honors, the 2020 Most Distinguished Alumni Award for the College of Arts and Sciences. He credits his mentors for putting him on the path to a career as a geneticist and biologist.

“It wasn’t always a possibility that I would get a chance to go to a university,” Jolly said during his acceptance speech. “It took a lot of work. It took a lot of support. It took having excellent mentors.

Channapatna S. Prakash, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Tuskegee and one of Jolly’s earliest mentors, praised him as one of the hardest working students he has known. “Even [when he was] a high school student, I used to tell people at the time in my lab, ‘mark my words, this person is going to be someone someday.’”

Jolly has all the ingredients for success, he continued, including “a positive attitude, the ability to face failures and also to recognize that if you want to succeed, you have to put in the hard work.”

Jolly received his Master of Science and PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco. He joined the Department of Biology at Case Western Reserve in 2009, and, beyond his work here, was elected to the Shaker Heights Board of Education in November 2019. 

According to Joy K. Ward, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve: “Jolly’s award is a wonderful testament to a most accomplished faculty member. He is a highly talented scientist and community leader, and I am so pleased that Tuskegee recognized Jolly among so many accomplished alumni to spotlight through this award.”

Jolly’s current National Institutes of Health-funded research has the potential to save lives, focusing on infectious parasitic worms, particularly schistosomes, that infect more than 200 million people every year and are responsible for the devastating disease known as schistosomiasis. The ailment is second only to malaria as the most devastating parasitic disease in the world.

Research by Jolly and his team, which includes students, lab technicians and collaborators, investigates the infection process. Jolly’s lab is also testing the potential for new drugs to treat infection caused by the parasites. According to Jolly, preliminary data suggests that one drug is effective, safe and inexpensive. He is also beginning drug studies against trypanosomes, single-celled parasites that are responsible for Human African Trypanosomiasis, also known as African sleeping sickness.

“There is much to be done,” he said.

Read more about Jolly in an art/sci magazine profile from 2016, but first, read his answers in this week’s five questions.

1. What was the last book you read? 

The last book I finished was The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. The book I am currently reading, for informational purposes ONLY, is called The Department Chair Primer by Don Chu. 

2. When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Initially, I wanted to be an electrician, practical and something I understood. But, in high school after important mentoring, I decided that I really wanted to be a scientist who studied human disease.

3. If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

When I was really young I wanted to be Superman and ran around the house with a towel around my neck. Well, towels don’t really help you with flying, something I learned the hard way. Now, I’d simply wish for universal wisdom to use knowledge to provide good and wise counsel.  

4. Who has had the greatest influence on you?

My parents without a doubt; my father was my hero growing up and probably influenced me more than anyone else. After my parents, three people stand out: Mildred White, a high school counselor who convinced me to go to college; Dr. James H.M. Henderson, who influenced me to go into biology and was my college mentor; and Dr. Erin K. O’Shea, who opened my mind to a new level of scientific research and convinced me to pursue a PhD instead of MD/PhD. 

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

Of course the amazing students, of which my daughter is now one of them, both undergrad, grad and professional. But also, I truly appreciate the amazing colleagues that I interact with and with whom I have been able to form strong friendships with here at CWRU.