University of Kentucky Researcher wins Prestigious Award; Will be Honored by President Obama

David McNear, PhD, assistant professor of rhizosphere science in the University of Kentucky's (UK) Plant and Soil Sciences Department, was recently awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for his research on endophyte-infected tall fescue and how it impacts soil microbial communities, chemical properties, and nutrient cycling.

According to a Department of Energy news release, the award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers. McNear will receive the award in person from President Obama at the White House this fall.

McNear heads up the rhizosphere science laboratory in UK's College of Agriculture. The lab is focused on exploring the processes that occur "where the root meets the soil," or in the rhizosphere, a 1-2-millimeter zone of soil around a plant root. The deposits and chemicals released from the plant root can, in turn, be influenced by or have an influence on the surrounding environment.

According to the project proposal, which brought about the nomination and subsequent award, tall fescue covers more than 15 million hectares within the United States and is considered one of the most desirable forage species for grazing livestock. Because of animal toxicity issues associated with common toxic endophyte tall fescue varieties, novel endophyte infected tall fescue varieties are gaining popularity. McNear's project is expected to generate basic knowledge on how an agriculturally important, widely occurring plant-fungal symbiosis impacts soil microbial communities, chemical properties, and nutrient cycling. McNear was subsequently awarded the grant and is in the first year of research on the project. UK forage researcher Rebecca McCulley, PhD, and microbiologist Noah Fierer, PhD, at the University of Colorado are co-investigators.

While it might not be readily apparent how the rhizosphere impacts the pastures horses graze, McNear maintains that soils are integral to just about everything we do and he spends his time in his "Fundamentals of Soil Science" class teaching students just that. The class, a requirement in UK's new Equine Science and Management undergraduate degree program, focuses on the importance of soils.

"They support the buildings we put on them; the food we grow in them; they withstand and treat the contaminants we introduce to them; they filter the water we drink; they capture the carbon dioxide we produce; etc.," he noted. "They are an integral resource that deserves to be respected, understood, and preserved."

According to McNear, recipients of the award are selected from early career scientists (those within the first five years of their careers who have not yet gained tenure) who received exceptional ratings on grants submitted to one of the federal granting agencies. In his case, it was the USDA, where his proposal ranked third of the 80 total proposals submitted, making it a top-rated proposal for a young investigator. McNear is one of only three scientists in the United States who received the USDA PECASE award this year, and he’s one of only 100 who were recognized with the honor across all federal agencies.

Upon learning he was a recipient of the award, McNear said, "As you would expect, I was pretty surprised. As a new faculty member, you are under a lot of pressure to write grants and get money, among other things like graduate students and publish, which is all I was hoping to do, to write grants and hopefully get lucky with one of them.

"When I heard the news that I received the grant, I was elated," he added. "When I heard that I was being nominated for the PECASE, I was confused. 'Why me?' was something I’ve said and thought often. I am only doing what I was supposed to do, keeping my head down, focusing on the research, and teaching--doing my job. Needless to say, I am honored and humbled by having been chosen. I never expected it, I graciously accept it, and will try to do my best to fulfill my charge."

McNear has been at UK for just over two and a half years. From Central Pennsylvania originally, he was the first member of his family to attend college. He earned an associate's degree in life sciences from Harrisburg Community College; a bachelor of science in environmental resource management with a minor in environmental engineering, and a master's in environmental pollution control from The Pennsylvania State University; and his doctorate, specializing in metals in soils, from the University of Delaware. Before coming to UK McNear worked briefly at the University of Delaware’s Delaware Biotechnology Institute.

He and his wife, who holds a PhD in agronomy, specializes in animal grazing systems, and works for the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, have a 3-year-old daughter and are expecting twins in early November.

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Holly Wiemers, MS, is communications director for UK’s Equine Initiative in the College of Agriculture.

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