UGA faculty honored for outstandind research and creativity

UGA faculty honored for outstanding research and creativity

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia faculty and graduate students were recognized for outstanding research and creativity at the university’s 29th Annual Research Awards Banquet on March 25. The program is sponsored by the non-profit University of Georgia Research Foundation, Inc.

Creative Research Awards

The Creative Research Awards are presented annually to recognize innovative research that has received national and international acclaim. Sarah Spence received the Albert Christ-Janer Award for research in the humanities; Bi-Cheng Wang received the Lamar Dodd Award for research in the sciences; and David DeJoy received the William A. Owens Award for research in the social and behavioral sciences.

Sarah Spence, professor of classics, is trained as a comparative medievalist. Yet her research and scholarly work also embrace the classics as well as more modern forms of literature. In addition to her many books, essays, and book reviews, Spence is the founding editor of Literary Imagination, a journal of creative and scholarly writing that has earned worldwide praise for her, its authors, and the University of Georgia. Spence’s interest in harnessing the unique capacity of literature to compare and contrast strategic issues is the subject of her current project, which analyzes the literary treatment of Sicily from Vergil to Dante. While the project draws on research from her first book, Rhetorics of Reason and Desire, it applies the methodology of her second book, Texts and the Self in the Twelfth Century, in which she looks at the creative interplay between Latin and vernacular texts.

Bi-Cheng Wang, professor and GRA Eminent Scholar of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, is internationally known for his major contributions to structural biology, crystallographic education, and structural genomics. Developer of the solvent-flattening method, Wang has more recently pioneered a new technique, direct crystallography, to expedite determinations of structure from native protein crystals. In addition to building a world-class facility for X-ray structural biology at the University of Georgia, Wang helped found and serves as director of the Southeast Regional Collaborative Access Team (SER-CAT)-a $25-million shared facility, constructed and operated by UGA, at the Advanced Photon Source of the Argonne National Laboratory. Wang, who received the 2008 A. Lindo Patterson Award from the American Crystallographic Association, also serves as director of the Southeast Collaboratory for Structural Genomics, an NIH-funded project that has attracted more than $30 million in support over the past seven years.

David M. DeJoy, professor of health promotion and behavior, studies the behavioral and psychological aspects of workplace safety, particularly the organizational factors that promote or obstruct it. In 1993, DeJoy authored, in the Journal of Occupational Medicine, a seminal paper that made the case for integrating the scientific and business aspects of workplace safety. His model emphasized organizational factors, as opposed to blaming accidents on workers or a lack of training; it is based on increased cooperation between unrelated departments to achieve common goals such as improved safety. This and DeJoy’s other work on integrating human resources within organizations have inspired new research directions in the field, as well as numerous real-world applications. Today many of the country’s largest employers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among them, have adopted his model.

Inventor’s Award

This award recognizes the researcher behind a unique, creative, and innovative discovery that has made an impact on the community. This year’s recipient is Vasu Nair.

Vasu Nair, William H. Terry Sr. Professor, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, head of the department of pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences, and director of the UGA Center for Drug Discovery, worked for more than a decade to bring HIV integrase inhibitors to the point where they could be licensed. Drug developers, including Nair, had been targeting HIV integrase for years, without success. But when he came to UGA’s College of Pharmacy in 2002, he began working on an entirely new class of HIV integrase inhibitors. Nair and his team came to understand that HIV integrase recognized certain constituents of human DNA that made it “want” to incorporate into that chemical chain. Because the strongest of these attractions was to a class of DNA components called pyrimidine, researchers built their inhibitor around a pyrimidine scaffold, which serves as a lure for HIV integrase in order to trap it. The potent anti-HIV activity and preclinical data suggest that the inhibitor has significant potential as an anti-HIV agent.

Creative Research Medals

These medals are awarded for outstanding research or creative activity within the past five years that focuses on a single theme and is identified with the University of Georgia. The 2008 recipients are: Wei-Jun Cai, Jonathan Crystal, Samantha Joye and Phillip Stancil.

Wei-Jun Cai, professor of marine sciences, studies the role of the oceans in regulating carbon-dioxide dynamics. Cai realized early in his career that traditional methods of sampling the oceans could not provide spatial and temporal data at the resolutions needed to accurately understand CO2 dynamics. He thus became a pioneer in developing deep-sea microelectrodes and automated shipboard sensors to obtain CO2 information. These new data greatly enhance scientists’ ability to predict global atmospheric CO2 concentrations and, potentially, to determine their contribution to global warming. His research has drawn great attention to the role of coastal oceans in regulating CO2 dynamics. Cai challenged the notion that the oceans are simply a large sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide, and he offered a new approach that divides them into subsystems. If confirmed, his view could have major implications for carbon-cycle research and the modeling of global CO2 fluxes.

Jonathon Crystal, associate professor of psychology, is an international authority on time perception and animal cognition. Using food as a reward, Crystal designed innovative experiments in which he showed that rats have “episodic-like memory”-the ability to recollect unique personal experiences. These findings give researchers an animal model that could help in understanding how humans with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders lose their memory. Crystal also has shown that rats are capable of metacognition, or an awareness of their own thinking; his is the first research to show that a non-primate species has this reasoning ability. His work has been published in premier journals such as Current Biology, and articles about his research have appeared in several high-profile popular publications, including Newsweek and The New York Times.

Samantha B. Joye, professor of marine sciences, uses innovative experimental approaches for assessing the impacts of climate change and global warming on biological and geological processes, particularly those involving carbon, in coastal ecosystems. Joye’s manipulation of marine sediments has been a powerful contributor to deciphering the myriad interactions between microorganisms and their environment, and her work on the effect of temperature on “community metabolism” in marine environments has made marine scientists rethink many traditional ideas. Joye’s discoveries not only provide critical information that will benefit researchers in developing advanced global-warming models but also are valuable in outreach efforts aimed at helping students and the public understand environmental issues.

Phillip C. Stancil, associate professor of physics and astronomy, is a leader in the application of atomic and molecular dynamics to astrophysics and astrochemistry. Characterized by a coupling of advanced computational and theoretical techniques, his work looks at the atomic and molecular collision processes that underlie important cosmic questions. By performing new calculations of collisions of sulfur and oxygen ions, Stancil and collaborators showed for the first time that Jovian X-ray emissions observed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory could be explained by ions from the moon Io colliding with Jupiter’s atmosphere. Other recent work from Stancil’s group uncovered significant errors in widely used calculations for molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which could have important implications for the study of interstellar clouds. His research has resulted in more than $2.4 million in grants and 84 publications-43 in just the past five years.

Distinguished Research Professors

The title of Distinguished Research Professor is awarded to academicians who are internationally recognized for their original contributions to knowledge and whose work promises to foster continued creativity in their discipline. This year, recipients include: Sidney Kushner, Catherine Pringle and Juergen Wiegel.

Sidney Kushner, professor of genetics, is a bacterial geneticist and molecular biologist whose interests and reputation extend to a broad spectrum of the life sciences. He is recognized internationally for his research on the mechanisms underlying the repair of DNA in response to ultraviolet radiation. More recently, he has made breakthrough discoveries in the genetics and molecular pathways of polyadenylation and messenger RNA turnover in E. coli. Kushner has published 100 peer-reviewed papers in the leading journals of his field and contributed dozens of insightful reviews. His research is characterized by colleagues as having a thoroughness that combines the power of bacterial genetics and recombinant DNA technology with in-depth biochemical and molecular analysis. When established techniques do not provide answers, they say, Kushner creates new methods, demonstrating a daring stubbornness to take on analytical problems that other scientists might well have avoided. He is a Fellow both of the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and a 1987 recipient of a UGA Creative Research Medal.

Catherine M. Pringle, professor of ecology, is a world leader in stream ecology and conservation. Her work focuses primarily on tropical rivers, with ongoing research in Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Panama and Trinidad, Georgia and North Carolina. Much of her research has centered on the questions, “What is the role of particular species in maintaining ecosystem function, and how do freshwater ecosystems change when species are lost?” Pringle found creative ways to obtain quantitative answers. For example, she developed an innovative method for examining the effects of species loss on stream ecosystems. This now-widely used in situ “electric-exclosure” technique excludes particular organisms from the ecosystem under study without the artifact of cage effects. This experimental technique has been used to predict effects of frog extinction from mountain streams in Panama and shrimp extirpation from streams in Puerto Rico. The wide range of her original research and other efforts on behalf of stream ecology have greatly expanded the field and given it a prominent place among the aquatic sciences. With more than 150 publications in top journals, leadership roles in pursuing national interests, and millions of dollars secured in competitive grants, Pringle has brought worldwide distinction to the University of Georgia.

Juergen Wiegel, professor of microbiology, pioneered the study of microorganisms that grow at temperatures above 55 degrees in the absence of oxygen. He has established one of the premier laboratories in the world for the isolation and characterization of such “thermophilic anaerobes.” As a postdoc at UGA, Wiegel isolated Thermoaerobactoethanolicus, which represents a novel thermophilic genus, species, and family and was the first wild-type organism patented in the United States for ethanol production. Recently, his laboratory extended the known limits of life when it isolated new genera of bacteria that thrive in alkaline hot springs and salt flats. Some of his novel isolates are a rich source of industrial-relevant enzymes. His laboratory developed a genetic system for thermophilic anaerobes, which is now used in industry. Wiegel’s work has resulted in more than 190 original scientific publications, three patents, and $5.7 million in extramural funding. In 2007 he received the Bergey’s Award, the highest honor in systematic bacteriology, for his contributions to the systematics of thermophilic and alkaliphilic microorganisms in extreme environments.