UGA faculty honored for outstanding research, scholarship

UGA faculty honored for outstanding research, scholarship

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia faculty and graduate students were recognized for outstanding research and scholarship at the university’s 30th Annual Research Awards Banquet on March 20. The program was 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. Hugh Ruppersburg received the Albert Christ-Janer Award for research in the humanities; Andrew Paterson received the Lamar Dodd Award for research in the sciences; and Andrew Herod received the William A. Owens Award for research in the social and behavioral sciences.

Hugh Ruppersburg, professor of English and senior associate dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, is a scholar of American literature, especially of the American South. The author of three books on major writers-two on William Faulkner and one on Robert Penn Warren-and of numerous articles about modern literature and film, Ruppersburg is also the editor of five major literary anthologies of Georgia writing, and the literature section of the New Georgia Encyclopedia; he is co-editor of Critical Essays on Don DeLillo. Ruppersburg has received three major awards for his work: the Governor’s Award in the Humanities (2007) and Georgia Author of the Year in 1992 and again in 2004. Through his efforts to bring together literature of all genres, he has made a significant contribution to literary study-and to the cultural identity of Georgia.

Andrew H. Paterson, professor of crop and soil sciences, plant biology and genetics, and Distinguished Research Professor and director of the Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory, is a world leader in the mapping and sequencing of flowering-plant genomes. His work has yielded greater understanding of flowering plants’ common ancestors and also of the evolutionary paths leading to present-day plants that provide food, feed, fiber, and fuel. Paterson pioneered molecular mapping methods that have been adopted across the life sciences, and he developed broadly applicable techniques for identifying and characterizing genetic variations in natural populations-such as the differences between elite crop varieties and “also-rans.” He recently led an international collaboration that completed the sequencing and analysis of the sorghum genome, only the second cereal genome to be sequenced, and he currently leads another international group in sequencing cotton. He was recently elected an AAAS Fellow.

Andrew Herod, professor of geography, motivated by the failure of contemporary social theory to understand the lives of social actors, particularly workers, as fundamentally spatially structured, has explored the complex transformations of place that characterize “globalization.” A major result is his deconstruction of the conventional wisdom, both in academic and popular discourses, about globalization to show that its widespread image as a homogenizing phenomenon is too simplistic. He argues instead for a more nuanced, spatially sensitive approach to understanding global capitalism’s emerging geography. By creating a new subfield within the social and behavioral sciences-labor geography-Herod has forced social scientists to reexamine the idea of place in social theory. The significance of his achievement is apparent by how widely his ideas have been cited, not just in geographic literature but also in fields such as labor and industrial relations, political science, international relations, anthropology and sociology.

Inventor’s Award

This award recognizes an inventor for a unique and innovative discovery that has made an impact on the community. The 2009 recipient is Michael Dirr.

Michael Dirr, professor of horticulture (retired), has introduced more than 100 new plant varieties to the horticultural world and, through his lifelong passion for plants, has inspired generations of students, gardeners, and professional horticulturists. Many of his introductions are licensed worldwide; others have contributed significantly to the nursery economy in Georgia and the U.S. Often called the Hydrangea Guru, he developed the varieties ‘Lady in Red’ and ‘Twist-n-Shout,’ the first of many patented releases with improved traits such as cold hardiness, repeat blooming and/or drought tolerance. He has written more than 300 scientific and popular publications and is the author of 12 books, including Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, and The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation, and Uses, the country’s most widely used teaching and horticultural reference text. This volume, which was honored by the American Horticultural Society as one of the greatest garden books of the past 75 years, has sold more than 500,000 copies.

The Creative Research Medals

These medals are awarded for outstanding research or creative activity within the past five years that focuses on a single theme identified with the University of Georgia. The 2009 recipients are: Wesley Allen, Dorothy Fragaszy, Jessica Kissinger, Ping Shen and Yiping Zhao.

Wesley Allen, associate professor of chemistry, is a theoretical chemist who has been a leader in the development of new quantum chemical methods of unprecedented accuracy. In recent years, he has made several important contributions to electronic structure theory, particularly his work on multi-reference coupled cluster methods, which establish a new gold standard for accuracy. He also carried out computations related to the structure and stability of hydroxymethylene, an elusive singlet carbine species that has long been discussed but never before identified experimentally. Its definitive identification, carried out in the laboratory of German scientist Peter Schreiner, was possible only through Allen’s detailed and accurate computations. In a surprising discovery, hydroxymethylene was then shown to be an example par excellence of quantum mechanical tunneling. These achievements, reported in the journal Nature, received world-wide recognition, both for Allen and the University of Georgia.

Dorothy Fragaszy, professor of psychology, studies adaptive behavior in primates, specifically manipulation and problem-solving, including using tools. Her objective is to understand the genesis of adaptive behavior within the framework of evolution. In 2003, Fragaszy and her team documented capuchin monkeys’ routine use of heavy stones as hammers for cracking nuts, a discovery that excited primatologists around the world. Since then, she has discovered similarities in tool use-such as the prospective selection and transport of tools and nuts, and the repeated use of anvil sites and hammers-among wild capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and ancestral humans. Her research, which creatively combines field experiments and observational work from multiple disciplines, provides insights into the physical, cognitive, ecological, social, and developmental dimensions of tool use among primates. It provides a new reference point for models of human evolution as well.

Jessica Kissinger, associate professor of genetics, is a molecular biologist who studies the evolution of genomes. Her discovery in 2003 that pathogenic eukaryotic protists engaged in significant lateral gene transfer, a process for transferring genetic information between species, has profound implications for understanding these organisms’ ability to cause disease. Her subsequent series of papers on the Apicomplexa also opened a new window into genome evolution and the biology of several other important disease-causing organisms. In addition, Kissinger’s work has led to a new understanding of evolutionary processes generally. While variation lies at the heart of evolution, her work shows how lateral gene transfer serves to move genes between organisms that cannot interbreed in the usual way. This groundbreaking research has cleared the way for further inquiry into lateral gene transfer and its role both in disease biology and genetics.

Ping Shen, assistant professor of cellular biology, established the fruit fly Drosophila as a model system for the study of feeding motivation, social behavior, and alcoholism. His research showed that foraging motivation and food intake in Drosophila are regulated by the same molecules, signaling pathways, and neurochemical systems as those of mammals. Shen used the techniques of Drosophila genetics and developed novel tests to define neural circuits that modulate an animal’s willingness to take risks and work for food, which is difficult to do in other systems. His pioneering studies are helpful in understanding many human behaviors and disorders of biomedical importance, such as obesity and anorexia, which are increasingly understood as failures of motivated feeding behavior. By taking advantage of a feature of the fly life cycle-its food avoidance as it begins to pupate-he also uncovered an ancient anti-stress/pain pathway in Drosophila, which provides a powerful genetic model for future pain research.

Yiping Zhao, associate professor of physics and astronomy, combines nanofabrication techniques with fundamental studies of liquid-nanostructure interactions to develop devices with bioscientific and engineering applications. He and his team have focused on plasmonic sensors, specifically those based upon surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy. Their results suggest that these novel sensors can be used as diagnostic tools; they detect extremely low levels of virus in a minute sample while providing structural and quantitative information about the virus. Zhao has designed and fabricated catalytic nanomotors, which have potential applications in targeted microsurgery and drug delivery. He and his team have filed 15 patents, 12 of which resulted directly from research on these projects during the past five years.

Distinguished Research Professors

The title of Distinguished Research Professor is awarded to faculty who are internationally recognized for their original contributions to knowledge and whose work promises to foster continued creativity in their discipline. This year, recipients are Sarah Spence and Leonard Poon.

Sarah Spence, professor of classics, is a prolific writer on a broad range of topics from classical antiquity to contemporary rhetoric. She is considered one of the most distinguished literary scholars of her generation. Spence’s many pioneering contributions (among them her 10 volumes and 59 articles and reviews), her ability to bridge disciplines in her writings, and her strong national and international reputation combine to set her apart. She recently began work on Sicily and the Poetics of Empire, an ambitious study of Sicily in the European imagination from Vergil to Dante. Trained as a comparatist with special interests in the Western literary tradition, she is well known for what one reviewer calls her “original way of bringing classical texts into new conjunctions with their medieval avatars.” Beyond the respect she enjoys for her own writing, Spence is appreciated for her work as founding editor of Literary Imagination, a journal she edited from 1999 to 2006. Like her own scholarly and creative output, the journal under her leadership featured a unique blend of the ancient and modern. It is highly regarded by peers around the world and has won literary praise for her, its authors, and the University of Georgia.

Leonard Poon, professor of health policy and management and director of UGA’s Institute of Gerontology, gained attention for his early research on aging and cognition, particularly for his work on memory and early dementia. But it is his remarkable 20-year program of research on the oldest old-individuals who live to age 100 or beyond-that has showcased his exceptional capacity for creativity and innovation. It also has revealed his ability to lead a team of prominent gerontologists and faculty across many disciplines and countries in investigations of what contributes to the oldest old’s survival. Called The Georgia Centenarian Study, this research project, so far, has resulted in more than 100 articles in a variety of professional journals, and it has been covered in the mass media by 60 Minutes, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, among others. In addition to its scientific findings, the research has provided opportunities for dozens of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty-at UGA and around the world. Poon has mentored more than 25 postdoctoral fellows, many of whom now hold important positions. His long and highly successful research program has brought recognition to Poon and pride to the University of Georgia.