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Alfano, Nastasi, Smith named AAAS fellows

UNL's newest AAAS fellows (from left) James Alfano, Mike Nastasi and L. Dennis Smith.
UNL's newest AAAS fellows (from left) James Alfano, Mike Nastasi and L. Dennis Smith.

Three UNL professors have been named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the world's largest general scientific society. The tradition of naming AAAS Fellows goes back to 1874. It is a peer-designated selection based on scientifically or socially distinguished efforts among scientists to advance science or its application.

This is the first time three UNL scientists achieved the honor in the same year.

UNL's new AAAS Fellows are L. Dennis Smith, for distinguished contributions to developmental biology and leadership and advocacy on education; James Alfano, for distinguished contributions in research of plant pathogens; and Mike Nastasi, for contributions in energy, manufacturing, nanotechnology and microelectronics.

This year, 702 members are awarded this honor by AAAS, and will be presented with a certificate and a gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) rosette pin on Feb. 16 during the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston.

Alfano, Charles Bessey Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, has been at UNL since 2000. He said he was flattered when he learned he had been named to the esteemed list after being nominated by UNL plant pathology professor James Van Etten, who also is an AAAS Fellow and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It feels great, and it's nice to be recognized by such a prestigious organization," Alfano said. "It was an honor just being nominated, a recognition of our hard work, and we're going to continue to work hard."

Alfano researches how bacterial pathogens cause disease in plants and how their strategies differ from the strategies employed by the bacterial pathogens of animals.

His seven-member lab, which is associated with the Department of Plant Pathology and the Center for Plant Science Innovation at UNL, focuses on the pathogen Pseudomonas syringae and its interaction with plants. The pathogen's key feature is a bacterial protein secretion system that injects bacterial proteins into plant cells, which allows it to grow in plants and eventually cause disease. Alfano's research delves into plant cells to determine precisely how the bacterial proteins modify them to favor disease.

"We’re working to understand how and what (P. syringae) is targeting inside plant cells," he said. "Our ultimate goal is to identify new components of plant immunity. We've learned a lot about this plant-pathogen interaction — now we want to transform that knowledge into improvements in agriculture."

Nastasi is director of the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research and Elmer Koch Professor of mechanical and materials engineering. Established in 2006, the center facilitates collaborative research into renewable domestic energy resources and energy efficiency to create economic opportunities for Nebraska. It is a partnership between UNL and Nebraska Public Power District and other industry partners. He previously worked with the Department of Energy at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He focuses on developing materials for extreme radiation environments. Earlier this year he was awarded a $980,000 the three-year project from the Department of Energy to improve nuclear reactor safety, performance and cost competitiveness.

"I have been fortunate enough to be a fellow of a number of societies, my first being as a fellow in Los Alamos National Laboratory, then the American Physical Society, Materials Research Society, now the AAAS," Nastasi said. "All these are fantastic recognitions, and years of hard work have paid off. With this recognition, one of the important things that has to happen is your colleagues have to think well enough of you to nominate you. So this is quite an honor."

Nastasi researches radiation tolerance and mechanical properties of nanostructured ceramic/metal composites — a subject that has increased in importance over the years and has allowed him to delve into new areas of exploration.

"I've been working in radiation effects since I was a grad student and have remained flexible over the years because the application for radiation effects is a moving target," he said. "When I was doing my Ph.D. thesis, which was on understanding materials for nuclear reactor environments, Three Mile Island happened… and the funding dried up, so I started looking into how radiation effects could be used to synthesize novel materials for industrial applications, and that ultimately led to a cooperative research agreement with Los Alamos and General Motors to help GM develop engine components that lasted a long time." The development of a process and technology to allow aluminum pistons to run with low-coefficient friction without a lubricant, resulting in an R&D 100 award. That led to looking at similar types of processes with different materials.

Nastasi said the thrill of the discovery following an experiment is what drives him to explore.

"I'm an experimentalist. So when we do an experiment and then analyze it to see the end result… every day would be like Christmas morning, because I never knew — I had a hint — and it was a fascinating experience to see what really happened, then put together and understanding of why what happened, happened, then come up with a theory and scientific method to change the parameters and go back and change the hypothesis."

Nastasi plans to continue his research and write textbooks so others can benefit from learning from his research.

Smith, president emeritus of the University of Nebraska and emeritus professor in the UNL School of Biological Sciences, took an unusual path to a career as a scientist. An aspiring jazz musician, he was a music major his first three years at Indiana University until his adviser counseled him about the difficulty of making a living as a performer, and recommended the less risky course of becoming a music teacher.

He accepted the first part of the advice and reluctantly gave up the trumpet as a vocation. But while he expresses the highest respect for music teachers — they had been a big help to him, after all — he said he decided he needed a bigger challenge and took the plunge into science.

"I took nothing but biology my senior year so I could get my required 30 hours, including a couple of advanced courses," he recalled. "One of them, which was a lab course for graduate students — I had to get permission to get in — but that's when I fell in love with with. It clicked the second semester of my senior year."

Smith went on earned his Ph.D. in experimental embryology at Indiana and after serving in various positions at Wood Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and as a staff scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, he became head of Purdue University's Department of Biological Sciences. It was at Purdue where he said he did his most significant scientific work.

"Some of the research we did early on laid the foundation for a Nobel Prize in 2003," he said. "We were talking about how oocytes (egg cells) are induced to complete meiosis (cell division) and reach the point where they can be fertilized, and we discovered a factor inside the oocyte which activated this cell division. I'm quite pleased with it. It was excellent research."

In addition to scientific research, the AAAS fellowship also recognized Smith for his work in science education and in defense of academic freedom during his 1994-2004 term as NU president. In 2002, the organization gave him its Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for his handling of a 1999 controversy over University of Nebraska Medical Center use of brain cells of fetal tissues for research conducted on neurodegenerative diseases.

"It's a very nice award, but it sort of feels like after the fact," he said of the fellowship. "I've been retired for several years and haven't been in a laboratory since 1995. But I'm very pleased. It's a nice honor."