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Four UNR professors elected as American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellows | News

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Four professors at the University of Nevada, Reno have been elected to the 2022 class of American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellows, one of the most distinguished honors within the scientific community. Mae Gustin and John Cushman are professors in the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, and Ana de Bettencourt-Dias and Lee Dyer are professors in the University’s College of Science.

With members in more than 91 countries across the globe, the AAAS is the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society and a leading publisher of cutting-edge research through its Science family of journals. Collectively, the four professors receiving the AAAS Fellowship honor have 83 years of work at the University of Nevada, Reno, and numerous internationally recognized scientific accomplishments.

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“Mae and John are truly top-notch researchers, not just at this University or in this State, but internationally,” said Bill Payne, dean of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, who himself is an AAAS Fellow. “Mae’s research on atmospheric contaminants like mercury is important to the study and mitigation of air pollution worldwide. And John’s efforts to increase tolerance of plants to challenging conditions have the potential to turn currently underutilized land into land that can be used to provide food and fuel for the world. I could think of no two professors more deserving of the prestigious AAAS Fellowship honor.” 

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Katherine McCall, interim dean of the College of Science, likewise says de Bettencourt-Dias and Dyer have earned the honor with their noteworthy accomplishments.

“Ana and Lee are outstanding examples of the transformative research taking place at the University,” McCall said. “Ana’s work studying light emission from inner transition metals applies to the seemingly disparate areas of energy conservation and cancer therapeutics. Lee’s collaborative leadership in chemical ecology brings together a variety of disciplines and communities to address important questions in tropical biodiversity. Their work is not only groundbreaking scientifically but has fundamental benefit to society and the environment.” 

The four researchers each have established their own niche in the scientific community, for which they are being honored by the AAAS.

Lee Dyer

Lee Dyer is in the Department of Biology and was awarded the honor in the biological sciences category for his work in chemical ecology and tropical biodiversity. His research interests lie in the complicated interactions that take place between plants and herbivores as a result of the chemical compositions of plants. He has also had a particular interest in the decline of insect populations due to global changes, such as caterpillars in the tropical eastern Andes in Ecuador, where they are important parts of ecosystem.

“I am most excited about the ability to combine natural history data collected over decades with high-quality chemistry and genetics data employing new approaches in mathematical models and statistical analysis,” Dyer said. “The collaborative environment here at the University of Nevada, Reno allows for these integrative approaches that were not possible at other institutions where I’ve had faculty positions.”

Dyer joined the University in 2008 and said that the interdisciplinary collaborations at the University have been valuable to his work.

“This award is meaningful because it demonstrates that the supportive, collaborative environment here at the University has contributed to a research career that is being recognized by respected scientific associations,” he said. 

Since 1997, Dyer has been involved with the Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit that gets citizen science volunteers involved in ongoing scientific research, including Dyer’s work in chemical ecology and biodiversity. In 2011, Dyer received the University’s Hyung K. Shin Outstanding Research Award, and in 2014, Dyer was named a Foundation Professor. He has authored or co-authored over 130 peer-reviewed research articles.

Ana de Bettencourt-Dias

Ana de Bettencourt-Dias is in the Department of Chemistry and was awarded the honor in the chemistry category for her various research projects, many of which focus on the “f elements” of the periodic table. While not well known, she says they are abundant in our daily lives. 

“The f elements, found at the bottom of the periodic table, have the ability to emit light and are really ubiquitous in our daily lives — from cellphones to automobiles,” she said. 

De Bettencourt-Dias is interested in studying their light emission for more energy-efficient lighting, but also for use in the medical applications. 

“My students and I are developing these molecules that will go into the cells preferentially,” de Bettencourt-Dias said. “Based on the intensity of the light emissions from the cells, researchers will be able to determine the temperature of the cells. This has applications for cancer research and therapeutics because cancer cells have different temperatures than healthy cells.”

De Bettencourt-Dias joined the University in 2007 and last year was named a Foundation Professor. She also served for four years as the University’s associate vice president for research. In 2006, she received the Science & Technology Award of the Technology Alliance of Central New York, and in 2021 was named a Fellow of the American Chemical Society. De Bettencourt-Dias has authored or co-authored over 80 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters. She is excited about the AAAS Fellowship and for the opportunity to continue to advocate for science.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “I think these awards really make the University a better place and also increase our ability to be recognized in the national arena as an institution where good research is done. We all want to make a difference with the research we do, right?”

Mae Gustin

Mae Gustin is in the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Science and also conducts research as part of the College’s Experiment Station unit. She was awarded the honor for her distinguished contributions to the field of biogeochemistry, particularly for understanding the fate and transport of mercury in the environment. She was elected a Fellow in the atmospheric and hydrospheric sciences category.

Gustin joined the University in 1994. While her work first focused on mercury contaminating soil and wildlife, her interest increasingly became focused on how that mercury then evaporates into gaseous elemental and oxidized mercury and becomes an atmospheric contaminant. She now identifies her primary research interest as the study of inorganic contaminants in the environment, with a particular interest in regional and long-range transport of air pollution, and how air moves in complex terrains. Over her career, she has published more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles. 

The University named Gustin a Foundation Professor in 2009 and Outstanding Researcher of the Year in 2016. The Nevada System of Higher Education Regents named her Researcher of the Year in 2018. In 2015, her research on the release, measurement and impact of mercury in the atmosphere was considered by scientists and scholars working to develop a United Nations treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from the release of harmful mercury compounds.

Gustin has worked in her lab and with colleagues at the University, nationally and internationally to develop newer technologies that more accurately measure airborne mercury and show that older technologies were undermeasuring the contaminant by as much as 80%. Most recently, they completed research to prove newer technology developed at the University of Nevada Reno and Utah State University has improved accuracy.

“It takes a lot of work to change dogma and form a new paradigm,” Gustin says. “This is how science evolves. You develop something and, if it’s good, others try it and get on board. I’m honored that AAAS has recognized the significance of my research on mercury in the environment. Fellows are singled out because of meritorious contributions to the advance of science.”

John Cushman

John Cushman is in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and also conducts research as part of the College’s Experiment Station unit. He was awarded the honor for his distinguished contributions to the field of plant science, particularly for his research on plant response to abiotic stresses, including salinity, drought and cold, and how to improve plant tolerance to these stresses. He was elected a Fellow in the agriculture, food and renewable resources category.

Cushman joined the University in 2000 and served as the biochemistry graduate program director 2005-2022. The overarching theme of his scholarly contributions is understanding plant responses to abiotic stresses and generating novel approaches for improving plant tolerance to these stresses. By doing so in model plant species, Cushman hopes to move these water-conserving adaptations into food, feed and biofuel crops, enabling production on agricultural lands with challenging soils or in challenging climates. He has published over 200 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters and holds two patents.

Cushman has become one of the world’s leading researchers on the molecular genetics of a specialized type of photosynthesis, known as “crassulacean acid metabolism” or CAM photosynthesis. Using this type of photosynthesis, some of the most water-efficient plants take up carbon dioxide at night instead of during the warmer daytime, which improves efficiency of water use and adaption to arid climates. In his lab, he has used CAM to engineer plants with increased tolerance to challenging conditions. Cushman has worked with arid-land crops such as cactus pear, camelina, teff and Saharan mustard.

“CAM used to be thought of as a curiosity: a weird, esoteric thing that a few desert plants do,” Cushman said. “It was a biological curiosity, but wouldn’t you want to have this biochemical adaptation apply to more plants to improve water-use efficiency, especially when many agricultural regions throughout the world are facing hotter and more arid conditions? There was little inkling early on that this would have the impact it is having. Now, many researchers are realizing the importance of this,” he said. 

The University named Cushman a Foundation Professor in 2011 and Outstanding Research of the Year in 2013. The Nevada System of Higher Education Regents named him Researcher of the Year in 2017. 

“I am truly humbled and honored to be elected as an AAAS Fellow by my scientific peers,” Cushman said. I think this type of recognition also highlights the high caliber of research being conducted at UNR.”

(University of Nevada, Reno)

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