[Back to Archived Features]
ISU agronomist finds early success with NSF CAREER grantby Scott MacDonald, CALS communications service intern
In the ever-competitive world of research grants, university scientists must often strive to present proposals for studies that explore new ideas while staying relevant to real-world applications and education.
For Iowa State University agronomist Maria Salas-Fernandez, working on this balancing act so early in her career has paid off.
The National Science Foundation in May awarded Salas-Fernandez, an assistant professor of agronomy, a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant for her project “Photoprotection for tolerance to abiotic stress: discovery though natural genetic variation.” The prestigious award, aimed at young, promising researchers, will allow her to fully explore her ideas on how to improve biofuel crops.
Salas-Fernandez works to breed sorghum for biofuel production. She gained agricultural industry experience in her native Argentina as well as a master’s degree from Texas A&M University and a doctorate from Cornell University before coming to Iowa State in 2008.
Agronomy offered ideal career option
When she was growing up, she says that visits to her family’s farm piqued her interest in agriculture.
“I always wanted to do research that had an application,” Salas-Fernandez said. “I chose agronomy because I thought I could combine biology and genetics and, at the same time, have an application and an impact.”
While at Cornell, she studied carotenoid pigments in sorghum, from a nutritional viewpoint. But she wondered what impact the pigments, as well as genes for other compounds, have on photosynthesis in plants dealing with environmental pressures.
“The next idea I wanted to explore was abiotic stress tolerance, since abiotic stresses are a big issue in food, feed and fuel production,” Salas-Fernandez said.
The project that she created focuses on a set of biological mechanisms called photoprotection, a little-studied property of plants that allows the organism to deal with extra energy it cannot utilize for photosynthesis while under stress. Certain genes help the plants to avoid absorption of radiation or reduce its damaging effects once absorbed. Salas-Fernandez believes that identifying and breeding for the most effective photoprotective genes could benefit commercial crops.
“It’s not common to utilize the natural genetic variation of a species for some of these mechanisms, which are quite complex,” she said. “That’s the challenge, really.”
Research will study sorghum genes
There are 57 genes that are known to have photoprotective abilities, and Salas-Fernandez’s team of three graduate students will study each of them in sorghum crops with the abiotic stresses of drought and cold tolerance.
“We’ll go out there and look at every single one of these 57 genes, and see whether that gene is actually associated with higher or lower photoprotective capacity,” she said. “If we find something that is associated with higher photoprotective capacity, then those versions of genes can be used in breeding programs to make the crop more tolerant to abiotic stresses.”
When each gene has been studied, Salas-Fernandez and her students will attempt to find out why the most successful genes are able to foster photoprotective value, which would help them expand the project to other crops.
“Once we know that, it will be quite easy to explore something similar in corn, soybeans or any other agriculturally important crops,” she said.
The National Science Foundation’s CAREER program awarded $608,461 for Salas-Fernandez’s project. It is the only current NSF CAREER grant in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. It was the first time she applied for the program, which is intended for pre-tenure university faculty beginning work that builds a “firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.”
“When I came up with this idea, I really thought it was going to be a good fit [for CAREER], because it had this novel component to it,” she said. “I think it also can be the basis of a lifelong career, because this is the first stone that we can build on to investigate abiotic stresses and improve crops.”
Online game to educate students
To emphasize the educational element of the grant in addition to demonstrations and field days with students and the public, the team plans to build a new module of Meta!Blast, a 3D virtual reality game developed under the direction of Eve Syrkin Wurtele, a professor in genetics, development and cell biology. The game allows high school and undergraduate students to learn about the complexity of biological mechanisms.
“The module will be about photoprotection and the way cells and plants deal with abiotic stress mechanisms,” Salas-Fernandez said. “Hopefully, it will help students to connect the genetic side of it with the physiology side of it.”
Receiving the NSF CAREER grant won’t just help Salas-Fernandez begin relevant research on plant mechanisms that could encompass her entire career and to share results with students and biofuel producers. It has also given her valuable experience on how to translate passion and excitement into results.
“I’ve learned that if you have a very good idea, and you can explain it in a way that people understand, you have higher chances of being successful,” she said. “The good feeling is not only that I got the grant, but also that I convinced other people that what I was excited about is a good idea.”
[Back to Archived Features]