January 13, 2010

David McNear, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers today at the White House.

The award is given to scientists who are within five years of receiving their doctorates and demonstrate great potential for leadership in their field of study. McNear was one of three award recipients from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This award indicates that Dr. McNear has gotten off to an incredible start with his research program," said Nancy Cox, associate dean for research and director of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station. "The presidential award reflects the highest peer recognition of his excellent work."

McNear was nominated for the award by Nancy Cavallaro, manager of the soil processes program with the USDA's National Research Initiative. She recognized his abilities from a grant proposal he wrote to study a fungal endophyte that lives in the shoots of tall fescue. McNear's proposal sought to explain how the endophyte affects compounds released from the plant and into the rhizosphere, the area where the soil, water and plant roots meet and interact, and how these compounds influence soil microbial populations and ultimately carbon and nitrogen cycling in agricultural fields throughout the Southeast. 

He received funding for the grant and is in his first year of study with co-investigators Rebecca McCulley, UK grassland agroecologist, and Noah Fierer, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"It's a pretty special thing and very humbling," he said. "It's nothing I ever expected."

In addition to his work with tall fescue and its endophyte, McNear and his lab members study the rhizosphere processes and plant genetic mechanisms involved in plant tolerance to heavy metals and their ability to uptake them from soils. This research is done in an effort to better use plants to remedy soils containing too many metals or to fortify staple food crops with essential micronutrients. Researchers in McNear's lab also study how plant processes can be altered to increase the allocation and sequestration of carbon in soils. He also teaches two classes. McNear credits UK and good collaborators with allowing him to pursue his varied interests.

"You know, if I were cornered or closeted into one area of study, I probably would have been more inhibited to take the risk and diversify into different research areas, so I think my broad job description at UK has definitely helped a lot," he said. "I arrived in a place where I saw possibilities and wasn't afraid to go after them."

For the press release from the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President click here.

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