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Two UGA CAES faculty receive National Science Foundation CAREER grants

By for CAES News

Two University of Georgia researchers have been awarded Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Brian Kvitko and Gaelen Burke, both faculty members in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, were awarded the five-year grants this year.

Both Burke’s and Kvitko’s teams will use the CAREER grants, which have a greater emphasis on education compared to other grants, to develop research-based learning materials to distribute to local middle schools.

A plant pathologist, Kvitko’s research focuses on plants and how their immune systems respond to potential diseases. His long-term objective is to understand the bacterial mechanisms that are targeted by the plant’s immune system. One of the areas of focus is sulfur, an essential element for life. When plants activate their immune systems, it appears to limit available sulfur, Kvitko said. This blocks the bacteria’s ability to grow in plant tissue.

“We know that plants have specialized receptors that let them detect invaders and pathogens. We know they can activate a defense response that protects them. What we don’t know is exactly what that means. What is the defense response and how does it suppress microbes?” Kvitko said. “Those are some of the objectives we want to really focus on during this research.”

Kvitko will teach plant and plant-disease science to students from all backgrounds, not just science majors to enhance students’ knowledge of plant pathology.

An entomologist, Burke focuses her research on the parasitoid wasp, a natural enemy of agricultural pest insects. She studies the relationships the wasps have with certain viruses that help the wasp kill insect pests to learn how those relationships originate and how they function.

Once the five-year grant research period is over, Burke believes her team might be able to manipulate these viruses to better kill pest insects.

“If we didn’t have grants from the National Science Foundation or other funding sources, we wouldn’t be able to hire the people to do the work. We wouldn’t be able to afford the reagents (substances used for chemical analysis) that we need. If you compared the lab to a small business, this would be like the bread and butter to keep us going,” Burke said.

The funding for both scientists totals nearly $1 million, which will help fund postdoctoral and graduate students to enhance their education, gain valuable research experience and help develop these important projects.

“NSF CAREER awards recognize university faculty with strong potential to become research leaders,” said Allen Moore, CAES associate dean for research. “To have two awardees in this college reflects the exceptional quality of scientists we are attracting to the University of Georgia. The future of agricultural research in CAES is in good hands.”

NSF provides about one-fourth of the total federal support academic institutions receive for basic research.

For more information about CAES research, see http://www.caes.uga.edu/research.html.

Clint Thompson is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences based in Tifton.
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