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CBS News - August 2008

From the Dean | College news | Research | People | Events | FYI

From the dean

Thank you, Claudia Neuhauser

Claudia Neuhauser, professor and head of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, left CBS June 30 to become Vice Chancellor of the University of Minnesota, Rochester, where she will be responsible for academic programs.

I am very happy for Claudia’s success, which reflects well on CBS, but will deeply miss her contributions to the department and college as well as the commitment, intelligence and creativity that she brought to every task. UMR is very fortunate to have her as part of its leadership team.

There’s a story about Claudia that says it all. A year or so ago, a group of CBS dean’s office staff met to review the college’s system for employee evaluations and decided to expand the range of categories. I think it was Fred Dulles who proposed a special category at the top just for Claudia.

During her seven years at CBS, Claudia transformed everything she touched. She designed a calculus course for biology students and wrote the textbook; strengthened the EEB graduate program; recruited talented young faculty to EEB; co-chaired the U’s Science and Engineering Task Force; won a $2.8 million NSF IGERT training grant; and led the U’s effort to get a $125 million DOE grant for renewable energy. For her efforts, she was named a Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute Professor and a Distinguished McKnight University Professor. She also received several awards from the University for outstanding contributions to graduate and undergraduate education.

Claudia is one of those rare academics who can excel at teaching, research and administration simultaneously, and still appear to be having a really good time. Her energy, curiosity, enthusiasm and good humor are boundless.

Thank you, Claudia for everything you’ve done for CBS. I wish you much happiness in your new job.

Bob Elde
Dean, College of Biological Sciences

College news

Evolution 2008 roundup

More than 1,400 biologists from 22 countries, including 15 College of Biological Sciences faculty and 30 graduate students played a role in the Evolution 2008 conference in June. The conference is the largest meeting of evolutionary biologists in the world covering subject matter ranging from deep history through evolutionary processes that are shaping the world today. CBS’ George Weiblen, an associate professor in Plant Biology, was the lead organizer of the four-day event.

The converging fields of phylogenetic biology and spatial ecology, which shed light at how environmental changes trigger genetic changes, proved one of the topics of greatest interest to conference participants. Jeannine Cavender-Bares (EEB), Ken Kozak (CFANS) and a handful of EEB graduate students gave a presentation on how ponderosa pines (major timber tree) changed genetically based on past climate changes.

Popular New York Times science writer Olivia Judson gave a public lecture on the final day of the conference based on her bestselling book about the evolutionary biology of sex, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation.

Weiblen attributes the success of the conference to a growing recognition of the relevance of evolutionary biology to many areas of academic inquiry. “With the advent of modern molecular biology, evolution is having an impact on lots of fields,” he says. “The success of the conference reflects that.”

New course to give grad programs a boost

A group of CBS and CFANS faculty members has received $20,000 from the College of Biological Sciences to develop a graduate-level course that will serve as a model for attracting top students. The course, which launches in fall 2009, will also create a stronger link between the plant biological sciences and the ecology, evolution and behavior graduate programs.

“The idea was to develop recruiting tools that would help more closely link the two grad programs,” says Jennifer Powers (EEB), lead organizer for the course proposal.

The course, which focuses on plant traits, was inspired by a graduate seminar on the topic that involved faculty across disciplines. “It was so dynamic that I think everyone got a lot out of it,” Powers says. Students who enroll in the course will develop research projects and receive grants ranging from $1,000–$2,500.

The topic of plant traits has particular resonance within the college and beyond it. “There’s been this development of literature on plant traits in the last few years. Peter Reich has pushed using plant traits as an organizing theme for ecology,” says Powers. “The neat thing about this seminar is that it brought together people who studied plants from all these different perspectives.”

Faculty involved in designing the course include Jennifer Powers (EEB), Jeannine Cavender-Bares (EEB), Sarah Hobbie (EEB), Rebecca Montgomery (CFANS), Peter Reich (CFANS), Imke Schmitt (PBIO), Peter Tiffin (PBIO) and George Weiblen (PBIO).

Textbook price relief for biochemistry students

After agreeing on a single text to be used by all instructors for Biochemistry (BioC 3021), BMBB faculty members successfully negotiated with publishers to offer the textbook to University of Minnesota students for $86 — $60 less than the previous course textbook.

“We did this by selecting five textbooks that all instructors deemed ‘acceptable’ and soliciting bids from the publishers,” says Paul Siliciano (BMBB). “With 1,200 students per year, this is one of the larger courses at the University, so we had a lot of bargaining power.”

The effort by BMBB faculty to reduce the financial burden on students when purchasing textbooks is echoed across the U. “With tuition increasing, we felt it was important to control textbook costs,” says Siliciano. “The students on our committees told us that although tuition far exceeds textbook costs, saving even $20 on books is important to them.”

EFS update

The University’s Policy Office has compiled a list of all the major financial policy and procedure changes that relate to the EFS transition. A complete list of these changes, in areas ranging from Procurement to Sponsored Projects, can be found on the EFS-SP website.

EEB transition leadership

Huber Warner, associate dean for research, will provide transitional leadership for the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior department until an interim department head is appointed. Dean Elde will meet with EEB faculty in August to discuss next steps for department leadership.

Research

Doctoral candidate Pankuri Goraksha-Hicks, advised by Thomas Neufeld (GCD), is lead co-author of a paper published in the August 1 issue of Nature Cell Biology. The paper reports findings about how cells sense nutrient levels in their environment. While it’s well known that cells control their rate of growth and metabolism according to the abundance of nutrients such as glucose and amino acids, and that the activity of a protein kinase called TOR is a key regulator of these processes, how changes in nutrient levels lead to changes in TOR activity has been a mystery. The researchers identified a family of proteins, the Rag GTPases, as important components of the signaling pathway upstream of TOR. Dysregulation of TOR signaling has been implicated in a variety of human diseases including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and neurodegeneration.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Judith Berman (GCD) more than $2 million over five years to study centromere structure and function in Candida albicans. The work was motivated by the discovery of a centromeric region involved in chromosome rearrangements in drug resistant isolates of this pathogenic yeast.

Friederich Srienc’s lab (BTI) has designed and constructed a minimal E. coli cell that converts sugars into ethanol with a high degree of efficiency. The findings are published in the June issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Susan Gibson (PBIO) received a $30,000 grant from the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council to study ways to use genetic variation in soybeans to improve seed composition and yield.

People

George Weiblen, associate professor of plant biology, is featured on the cover of Minnesota, the U of M alumni magazine. The story describes his efforts to record the biodiversity of Papua, New Guinea’s rain forests before it is too late. Weiblen, who hosted the Evolution 2008 conference at the U, was also quoted in two recent issues of Science. In the July 11 issue, he weighed in on “Modernizing the Modern Synthesis,” which, 70 years ago, combined Mendelian genetics, population genetics, adaptation and Darwin’s natural selection theory. In a story titled “Where Have All Thoreau’s Flowers Gone?” he noted that evolutionary biologists are showing how climate change affects biodiversity. The Evolution 2008 conference was also mentioned in the story.

Jeff Thomas, director of finances and facilities for the College of Biological Sciences for the past 12 years, has accepted a position as head of finance for the College of Pharmacy.

Nathan Springer (PBIO) has been appointed to the editorial board of the journal Plant Physiology. He joins fellow Plant Biology faculty members David Marks and Kate VandenBosch on the board. Nathan was also the subject of an article about the burgeoning field of plant genomics in the online edition of Science.

The following CBS faculty members were recently promoted from assistant professor to associate professor: Reuben Harris (BMBB), Peter Tiffin (PBIO), Anja Bielinsky (BMBB), Hiroshi Matsuo (BMBB), Nikunj Somia (GCD), Duncan Clarke (GCD) and Kylie Waters (BMBB). And from associate professor to full professor: Jim Cotner (EEB), David Largaespada (GCD) and David Zarkower (GCD).

Susan Gibson (PBIO) was elected to the University of Minnesota Senate for 2008–09. Continuing senators include David Biesboer (Plant Biology), Sehoya Cotner and Bruce Fall (Biology Program), and Sarah Hobbie (EEB).

Jessica Kuecker Grotjohn (Student Services) was elected to the Council of Academic Professionals and Administrators. Sara Georgeson (Student Services) was elected to the Consultative Committee of the CBS Academic Professional and Administrative Staff Representatives. Sarah Corrigan (Student Services) was selected to serve on the Educational Policy Committee.

M. Jane Albeck (GCD) was chosen to serve on the Consultative Committee of the CBS Civil Service/Bargaining Unit Clerical Representatives. Tracy Anderson (CBS Imaging Center) was elected to the Consultative Committee of the CBS Civil Service/Bargaining Unit Scientific/Technical Representatives.

CBS graduate student Karl Gruber has been awarded a $7,200 research grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to conduct research on the evolution of the sex determination gene in bumblebees at Heinrich-Heine University in Germany.

Distinguished McKnight University Professor Judith Berman (GCD) recently welcomed two new post-docs to her lab. Laura Burrack, an National Research Service Award fellow who received her Ph.D. in microbiology at Harvard Medical School, and Tamar Lahav, who received her Ph.D. at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. Laura will be working on Candida albicans centromere structure and function. Tamar will be comparing data from genome-wide studies of the pathogenic yeast Candida albicans and the model baker’s yeast.

Thirteen University of Minnesota students received Fulbright grants for 2008–09—an increase from an average of eight in recent years. CBS recipients include plant biological sciences graduate student Brian Peter Piasecki and plant biology undergraduate Brian Arnold.

Stephanie Xenos (Dean’s Office) has been promoted to assistant director of communications. In her new role, she will be responsible for developing strategies for using Web 2.0 media such as online audio, video and social networking to advance CBS goals.

Events

Ferulate ’08 Conference

Scientists from academia and industry will meet to share new information on hydroxycinnamates and related plant phenolic compounds, which influence food processing, biofuel production and other areas.

DETAILS: University of Minnesota | St. Paul campus | August 25–27

Minnesota Invasive Species Conference 2008

This research-based forum on terrestrial and aquatic invasive species will bring together research, management and education professionals to learn about and develop ways to combat the threat these species pose to ecosystems.

DETAILS: Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center | October 26–29

FYI

UM Electronic Instrument Services (EIS) users can now request service online at www.cbs.umn.edu/eis. EIS repairs and calibrates most types of laboratory equipment and supports all major manufacturers.