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Four Faculty Hired at UW as Part of $20 Million NSF Grant

November 7, 2018
Sarah Collins, Kimberly Lau, Eunsook Park and Lauren Shoemaker

Four new faculty members have been hired as part of a five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant the University of Wyoming received to study microbes.

Sarah Collins, who will focus on aquatic biogeochemistry, started this fall as an assistant professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology. Kimberly Lau, biogeochemistry, Department of Geology and Geophysics; Lauren Shoemaker, computational biology, Department of Botany; and Eunsook Park, plant microbe interactions, Department of Molecular Biology, will start in January 2019. All were hired as assistant professors.

“These individuals will join the four co-principal investigators and other lead scientists to round out the researchers and faculty studying microbes across Wyoming,” says Emily Stewart Vercoe, the education, outreach and diversity coordinator for Wyoming NSF EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research).

Using cutting-edge techniques, including DNA sequencing and computational modeling, scientists, under the grant, hope to learn the distribution and ecological consequences of microbes. This will produce insights that will help Wyomingites address a variety of challenges -- from managing rangeland, forest and water resources, to reclaiming areas disturbed by mineral extraction, to improving crop productivity.

In the process, UW expects to stimulate significant economic and business opportunities across the state -- and engage people from elementary school pupils to community college students to business leaders in scientific discovery.

New Faculty Hires

The new faculty hires, their backgrounds and what their focus will be at UW under the grant are:

-- Collins joined UW in August, having come from a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology. Her research focuses on ecosystems ecology, specifically the elemental cycling and food web dynamics in freshwater ecosystems.

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Collins says she is glad to be back in a part of the country where there is diverse topography, ecosystems and fieldwork potential. As a Ph.D. student, Collins spent time in the field and on classic field ecology, while her postdoctoral work focused on data science. Her UW position integrates these skill sets and allows for new direction in analysis of big environmental science datasets. Collins wants to bridge the gap between the two fields, as well as citizen science and labor-intensive fieldwork.

The expertise Collins brings is well-timed with UW’s investment in data science with the Data Science Center and new cluster hire. It will enable new collaborations and projects across disciplines, colleges and partners. The cross-disciplinary collaboration and the Program in Ecology were draws for Collins.

-- Lau joins UW after finishing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California-Riverside. Her research focuses on investigating the causes of environmental changes in Earth’s history. She is interested in the links between the biogeochemical cycles of oxygen, carbon and redox-sensitive elements. Using geochemical clues in the marine sediment, she reconstructs past environmental conditions.

“Being a professor at the University of Wyoming is a stellar opportunity to do research and to teach in a geologist’s paradise,” Lau says. “Within a day’s drive are rocks from nearly every major time interval in the history of our planet -- an ideal fit for my scientific interests, which are focused on understanding environmental change in the past.”

In addition to continuing her existing collaborations, Lau hopes to develop new projects for research and teaching in the region, involving both undergraduate and graduate students in geological research.

“As part of the new EPSCoR microbial ecology project, I am excited to expand my research to new, nearby field sites with the aim to study the cycling of a major nutrient -- phosphorus -- in ancient oceans,” she says. “Phosphorus plays an important role in determining how microbial communities in the ocean impact environmental conditions, such as oxygen levels, that can then influence the evolution and extinction of marine animals.”

Lau sees a lot of potential to collaborate with other UW faculty and use the extensive analytical facilities. She also plans to take advantage of the strong interdisciplinary ties with the Program in Ecology and the School of Energy Resources.

-- Shoemaker joins UW after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in complex systems science at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on how spatial structure in landscapes alters population and community patterns. She uses mathematical and computational techniques for a fresh perspective on ecological questions.

“I was initially drawn to this position due to the highly collaborative and interdisciplinary work occurring at UW, thanks to support from the EPSCoR program and RII Track-1 grant,” Shoemaker says. “In my work, I have found that a collaborative approach to science leads to results with important implications for both management and scientific understanding across varied disciplines.”

At UW, she plans to continue her research examining the processes that maintain biodiversity and structure ecological communities.

“Wyoming is an ideal setting for this work, as one of my primary interests is how communities recover from disturbances, such as drought or fire, and how this recovery changes along environmental gradients, such as elevation,” she explains. “With a background in ecology and complex systems science, I am excited to combine biological, mathematical and computational approaches to answer these questions, working with the EPSCoR program and broader UW community.”

“I am excited to have Lauren Shoemaker join the faculty at UW, because she develops conceptual and mathematical expectations for biological processes, and then tests these expectations with clever and powerful experiments, or with observations from nature,” says Alex Buerkle, a professor in the Department of Botany and chair of the hiring committee for the position. “She integrates these different, challenging approaches to make scientific discoveries in ecology and quantitative biology, and I am excited for the work she’ll do at UW to mentor, inspire and teach students.”

-- Park comes to UW from a position as a research assistant professor in plant science at Seoul National University. Her research focuses on how plants and bacteria interact at the cellular level.

“Primary research goals of my lab are to illuminate the dynamic contribution of organelles and their interaction in plant cells, in response to the environmental stress including microbial pathogen infection,” Park says. “In plant-microbe interactions, co-evolution of strategies enables us to develop the multistep actions of both invasion strategy of pathogenic microbes and defense of plants.”

For example, she says, most bacterial pathogens secrete proteins called type III effectors (T3Es) inside the plant cells using a type III secretion system (T3SS). Several T3Es were identified to manipulate plant organelle functions leading to the suppressions of the plant’s immunity.

Her UW lab will focus on understanding detailed intercellular mechanisms of the effector-organelle relationship during plant-microbe interactions. Initially, her lab will use two model plants -- Arabidopsis thaliana and Nicotiana benthamiana -- and effectors from two microbial pathogens -- Pseudomonas syringae and Phytophthora infestans -- to investigate the target strategy of effectors in plant organelles and to study the role of interorganellar communications in the plant immunity.

“Our understanding of the involvements of organelles in the plant-microbe interactions will contribute to protecting crop plants from their pathogenic microbes to improve our food security,” Park says.

“Dr. Park’s work contributes to the EPSCoR project and brings new skills to UW by virtue of her expertise in how bacteria and plants interact at the cellular level,” says Peter Thorsness, head of the Department of Molecular Biology and chair of the hiring committee for the position. “Dr. Park is particularly interested in how bacterial signals infiltrate plants and change cellular structures, sometimes causing disease for the plant and sometimes resulting in mutually beneficial outcomes.”

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