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Assistant professor honored with National Science CAREER award

By Chelsea Stockton
University News Service
July 23, 2009

Nihal Dharmasiri

Nihal Dharmasiri, assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Texas State University-San Marcos, has been awarded a Faculty Early Career Development award by the National Science Foundation.

The CAREER program offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research.

The second most prestigious award given by the NSF, receivers of the CAREER award are then eligible for the outstanding Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

This is the third CAREER award to be received by Texas State and the first to go to the Department of Biology.

Dharmasiri received the five-year, $550,000 grant for his research in plant growth and development--specifically in relation to the plant hormone auxin.

“Auxin is a very small organic molecule, but it has the great ability to control the whole life of plant growth.” Dharmasiri said.

According to Dharmasiri, auxin plays a major role in the regulation and development of plants throughout their life cycle. Many natural and synthetic chemicals contain auxin activity, and some of these chemicals are being used as plant growth regulators and herbicides in agro-industry.

Dharmasiri’s lab work consists of trying to figure out just howthe hormone auxin regulates plant growth. What are the genes involved in the hormone response? Dharmasiri wants to identify those genes to help determine their function.

The grant money will go toward undergraduate and graduate salaries as well as necessary chemicals and supplies for research. In addition, Dharmasiri is planning to encourage high school students to get involved in science and research through summer programs.

“Basically, with this money we have to make a big impact on education,” Dharmasiri said. “And that’s why we’re trying to reach out to high school students, to make them more interested in science before they come to college.

“So many high school students are afraid of going into science because they think it’s hard. So if we bring them here, they can try doing these things. And once they try it, they might become interested in it,” he said.

Dharmasiri said that he also plans to use the grant for two experimental modules. One module will be introduced in an undergraduate plant physiology class that he’s teaching, and the other will be made for preservice and inservice teachers in collaboration with Sandra West, an associate professor of biology.

“In this way, we can do something for teachers as well,” Dharmasiri explained. “Then the teachers will be able to go to their schools and teach it to their students, and then we will have a bigger impact of the work we’re doing on education.”

As to his now being eligible to receive the prominent NSF PRECASE, Dharmasiri admits that he does not know what the future will hold.

“If I look at my past achievements and also this one, well, who knows,” Dharmasiri said with a laugh. “But it’s all about the work. What we want is to do a good job for the university.”