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White House awards for energy, plant research

By Andy Fell on November 9, 2010 in

A chemical engineer and a plant scientist at the University of California, Davis, have been selected to receive the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Ilke Arslan, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, were among 85 researchers chosen by President Barack Obama to receive the award, the nation’s highest honor for professionals in the early stages of their scientific research careers. They will receive the awards at a later date during a White House ceremony.

Nanomaterials expert Ilke Arslan

"I'm absolutely thrilled and extremely honored to receive such recognition from the president," Arslan said.

Arslan was nominated for the award by Sandia National Laboratories for her work studying nanomaterials for energy and hydrogen storage; for advancing the technologies necessary to characterize these materials; and for excellence in outreach and mentoring of the next generation of American scientists and engineers.

"I have always felt that I wanted my research to make an impact and now I have that opportunity," Arslan said. "My colleague, David Robinson (Sandia National Laboratories), is an expert on synthesis of nanomaterials, and together with my expertise on characterizing the detailed 3-D morphology and chemistry of energy storage materials, we can work towards an optimized nanomaterial for energy and hydrogen storage that can really make a difference to our national security and the future of our global economy."

With the award, Arslan will receive about $50,000 in annual research support for each of the next five years.

Arslan works on a technique called electron tomography in scanning transmission electron microscopy. This method is capable of routinely producing three-dimensional images of materials with a resolution of around one nanometer, or roughly 10 atoms across.

"Three-dimensional imaging is very important because almost all energy materials are three-dimensional," Arslan said.

Nanomaterials are materials with a crystal structure on a scale of nanometers, or billionths of an inch. For example, efficient energy storage materials might be made up of many tiny pores that give them a very high surface area. The optimum size and arrangement of those pores can only be studied in three dimensions.

Arslan was also cited for her dedication to teaching and mentoring aspiring young scientists from elementary school to graduate school. She has been active in giving science demonstrations at local science museums and elementary schools, participating in a program for high school girls in math and science, lecturing and demonstrating to underrepresented undergraduate minorities, and advising undergraduate, masters, and graduate students in research.

Arslan received her bachelor's and master's degrees in physics from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2000 and 2003, respectively, and her doctorate in physics from UC Davis in 2004. She worked at Cambridge University, England, on National Science Foundation and Royal Society fellowships from April 2004 through December 2005. From 2006 to 2008, she worked at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore as a Truman fellow. She joined the UC Davis faculty in November 2008.

Plant genetics expert Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra

“I am quite humbled to be receiving such an honor in only my second year at UC Davis, said Ross-Ibarra.

He was nominated for the award by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a research project that uses a novel approach, based on population genetics, to identify genes that would be useful in improving varieties of maize, also known as corn.

In this research project, Ross-Ibarra and his team plan to identify the genotype, or genetic profile, of 60,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms. These are genetic variations that occur when just a single nucleotide or building block in the DNA sequence differs.

As part of its nomination, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide Ross-Ibarra’s project with $150,000 in annual support for three years.

Ross-Ibarra’s research program deals with the evolutionary genetics of adaptation in plants, with a particular focus on the study of plant domestication and the evolution of crop plants. His laboratory uses maize as a model crop for these studies.

“Much of this work uses population genetic modeling to investigate the importance of natural selection, gene flow and demographic history in patterning diversity and divergence in the maize genome,” he said.

In addition to work on identifying genes important for maize domestication and improvement, Ross-Ibarra’s lab is currently collaborating on a number of projects, including work on chromosome evolution and studies of natural populations of the wild ancestor of maize in Mexico.

Ross-Ibarra’s nomination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that the plant geneticist has “an excellent track record of productivity ... and professional service.” It added that, by focusing on maize, one of the most important crops for the U.S. economy, and on techniques that can be used with other important cereal crops, Ross-Ibarra’s research will help “promote sustainability of U.S. agriculture and international food security, while enhancing the environment by reducing pressure on cultivatable land resources.”

Ross-Ibarra and colleagues also are working to facilitate international scientific exchange through a program that will bring students from Mexico to work in U.S. laboratories, where they will study chromosome biology in maize. The exchange program is part of a research project, funded by the National Science Foundation, that focuses on completing the sequence and assembly of maize centromeres, the central region of chromosomes.

After earning his doctoral degree in genetics from the University of Georgia in 2006, Ross-Ibarra completed his postdoctoral research at UC Irvine. He also received a master’s degree in botany in 2000 and a bachelor’s degree in botany in 1998, both from UC Riverside. He joined the UC Davis faculty in 2009.

About the award

Established in 1996, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers at the beginning of their careers. The awards are conferred annually at the White House, following recommendations from nine participating agencies.

Other UC Davis faculty who have received the award previously include: William DeBello, professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior, Center for Neuroscience; Valerie Eviner, assistant professor of plant sciences; Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi; Tonya Kuhl, professor of chemical engineering and materials science; Kwan-Liu Ma, professor of computer science; Zhongli Pan, associate adjunct professor of biological and agricultural engineering; Naoki Saito, professor of mathematics; and W. Martin Usrey, associate professor, neurobiology, physiology and behavior, Center for Neuroscience.

Media contact(s)

Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533,

Pat Bailey, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, 530-219-9640,

Ilke Arslan, Plant Sciences, (530) 752-3685,

Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, 530-752-1152,