November 8, 2004

AAAS Awards Five C.U. Professors

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Five Cornell University professors were recently awarded fellowships at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. These five recipients are Prof. Ralph Obendorf, crop and soil sciences, Prof. Roger Spanswick, biological and environmental engineering, Prof. David Stern, plant biology, Prof. Gregory Martin, plant pathology, and Prof. Susan McCouch, Ph.D. ’90, plant breeding and genetics.

Obendorf received this fellowship award in part because of his research on the buckwheat seed, in particular looking at purified enzymes that synthesize insulin mediators and the corresponding genes. Ultimately, Obendorf said, the information derived from this research may be used to find “stopgaps to provide humans with the missing parts,” potentially leading to the development of a dietary treatment for type II diabetes.

More importantly, however, Obendorf believed that he received this fellowship because of his work with his undergraduate students. The letter of notification stated that he was awarded in part for mentoring students and nurturing interest in science.

“These are high-performance students … the cream of the cream,” Obendorf said. He pointed out that he had up to twelve undergraduate students working in his lab. He cited dozens of anecdotes about his work with students over the years, referring to a long list of his publications and pointing out the students’ roles in each.

Spanswick was awarded for his work on ion transport in plant cells, which focused on the role of electrogenic proton pumps in controlling the electrical potential across the plant cell plasma membrane and in providing the power to drive sugar uptake. This work, Spanswick said, if applied to developing soybean seeds for example, is significant in understanding the yield of the crop itself.

In a search for alternative energy sources, Spanswick is now working on the role of the sugar transport system in canola oil synthesis. It has been demonstrated that diesel can be replaced by vegetable oil, the main problem being that vegetable oil becomes viscous at low temperatures. Spanswick pointed out that the upstate New York climate is suitable for canola production.

Stern, president of the Boyce Thompson Institute, was awarded for his work in plant adaptability. “[It is] fascinating that … plants can grow everywhere … if it gets cold, you can put on a coat. But plants have no mobility … yet they can still respond to environmental changes in order to live,” Stern said.

Speaking specifically about the AAAS fellowship, Stern said, “[It] has the potential to change the opinion of people who see it on your resume.” The fellowship, he added, could very likely open doors and create opportunities. For example, he said, at the February 2005 AAAS fellowship symposium, he might meet another researcher that could send him down a different path.

He said that his work has been incorporated into biotechnology, or the engineering of plants to function in new ways, but observed that primarily his research at BTI was “far removed from the application of technology.” Stern plans on continuing his work in this area.

Another recipient of the fellowship, Martin stated in an email, “I received a letter from AAAS saying I was being recognized for my research on the molecular basis of plant disease resistance and susceptibility. My lab has been working on that topic for the past 10 years or so.” According to Martin’s site, his research focuses on topics including bacterial pathogenesis, the molecular basis of disease susceptibility, and the role of signal transduction in disease resistance.

McCouch, according to Spanswick, was awarded this fellowship based on her work with rice breeding. McCouch was unavailable for comment. The AAAS is the publisher of the journal Science and 308 scientists were named fellows this year.