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Plant biologist nominated for prestigious early career award

Professor Bob Schmitz with plants in his epigenetics laboratory. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

UGA’s Schmitz named finalist for 2022 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists

University of Georgia faculty member Robert Schmitz was recently chosen as a finalist for a national award for young scientists. The Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists is the world’s largest unrestricted prize honoring early career scientists and engineers.

Schmitz is a plant biologist who performs groundbreaking research on plant epigenetics—the chemical modifications to DNA and associated proteins that alter gene expression—to unlock new methods to increase agricultural sustainability and food security. He found that some plant epigenetic mechanisms differ from those of animals, and that this unique mode of epigenetic modification impacts plant evolution and can inform crop breeding.

His discoveries in the epigenetics of maize offer plant breeders targets in the maize genome to improve crop performance, such as overall yield or resistance to disease. Schmitz’s work, as described in the Blavatnik Awards finalists announcement, has set in motion the discovery and creation of new plant biotechnology that could help feed the world.

The honorees were chosen from a highly competitive pool of 309 nominees from 150 leading universities and scientific institutions from 38 states across the United States.

From the announced group of finalists, three winners—in life sciences, chemistry, and physical sciences and engineering—will be named on June 29, each receiving $250,000 as a Blavatnik National Awards Laureate.

“I am thankful for this recognition and grateful to past and present lab members that have advanced our understanding of plant epigenetics,” said Schmitz, who holds a UGA Foundation Professorship of Plant Sciences and is the Lars G. Ljungdahl Distinguished Investigator. “We are fortunate to work alongside so many great colleagues in the department of genetics at the University of Georgia.”

Three independent juries—each representing one of the award categories—selected the finalists and will determine the winning laureates. Laureates must be faculty-level scientific researchers, 42 years of age or younger, and are nominated to the competition by their university or research institution.

“At his initial hire as an assistant professor, Bob was clearly a rising star in the field of epigenetics,” said Nancy Manley, Distinguished Research Professor and head of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of genetics. “This award reflects what we know already—that his creativity, productivity and leadership while a faculty member at UGA have more than borne out that early promise, and promise even more great things in the future.”

“This is an extraordinary honor and I would like to acknowledge the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists for recognizing the importance of agricultural research as part of their life sciences portfolio,” Schmitz said.