College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty Basil Nikolau and Kan Wang are among six Iowa State University researchers named by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to its class of 2020 Fellows for “distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.” They were recognized at the AAAS’ annual meeting, held virtually in early February.
Basil Nikolau: Exploring Plant Metabolism
Basil Nikolau is the Frances M. Craig Professor of Biochemistry in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology at Iowa State and directs the Center for Metabolic Biology and the W.M. Keck Metabolomics Research Laboratory. He was selected by AAAS for “contributions to the field of biochemistry, particularly for the characterization of novel metabolic processes.”
His research focuses on plants and their unique metabolic capabilities, which he describes as “the underlying chemistry that biology does in order to harness energy, enabling propagation and producing a rich and diverse biomass.”
Nikolau has played a role in key discoveries that have changed understanding of plant metabolism, including integrating biochemistry with genetics and genomics.
“The success of my scholarship has hinged on the ability to lead changes in the exploration of unknowns,” he said.
His awards include the CALS Dean Lee R. Kolmer Award for Excellence in Applied Research in 2017, and early in his career, the American Chemical Society’s Herman Frasch Foundation Research Award, which “enabled a lot of things to happen.”
He is especially proud of leading big multidisciplinary collaborations to solve perplexing biological questions. These include establishment of the Center for Metabolic Biology, which spurred development of the W.M. Keck Metabolomics Research Laboratory. Another such initiative was a collaboration with engineers that led to the Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals, a 10-year, National Science Foundation-funded partnership of 30 faculty across Iowa State with other institutions and industrial partners.
“These efforts allowed hiring of new faculty, provided the foundation for new infrastructure and offered new avenues to train graduate and undergraduate students,” he said.
Working with students has been one of his priorities. Giving undergraduate students meaningful, hands-on opportunities is something he strives to make happen in his lab, where he said, “I approach our work as ‘what are we going to do together’ as a team.”
This mindset helped inspire the Symbi GK-12 Project that placed graduate students in Iowa middle and high school classrooms as resident scientists. Though funding has ended, its concepts live on in the Iowa State Science Bound Program, directed by one of his former GK-12 students.
Nikolau grew up in New Zealand and earned his degrees at Massey University. He held post doc positions at the University of California–Davis and the University of Utah and worked at a biotech company before he and his wife, Eve Syrkin Wurtele, also a plant scientist, accepted faculty positions at Iowa State in 1988.
Nikolau is currently on leave from the university, serving an appointment at the National Science Foundation as director of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biology in its Biological Sciences Directorate.
Kan Wang: Advancing Crop Genetic Transformation
Kan Wang holds the Global Professor in Biotechnology in Iowa State’s Department of Agronomy and co-directs the Crop Bioengineering Center. She was named an AAAS Fellow “for advances in genetic engineering in plants using Agrobacterium tumefaciens.”
Wang’s pioneering research explores novel technologies for crop genetic transformation and genome editing, with applications such as increasing the nutritional content of corn and yam and improving corn varieties for bioethanol production.
“A lot of things in my career were largely accidental,” Wang said in a recent interview for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “That was due to many situations, including politics in China when I was young... I was sent by my country to study in Ghent, Belgium, as a graduate student. At first, I was disappointed, because I wanted to study human genetics. But I soon became fascinated by the work there to use naturally occurring Agrobacterium to manipulate plant genomes.”
Wang came to Iowa in 1989 as a research scientist for industry. A few years later, she joined Iowa State to establish and direct the university’s new Plant Transformation Facility, one of the first public facilities to provide crop genetic transformation services to academic researchers.
The 2018 book, “Using Nature’s Shuttle: The Making of the First Genetically Modified Plants and the People Who Did It,” by Judith M. Heimann devotes a chapter to Wang’s career. She was recognized with the Iowa Women of Innovation Award for Research Innovation and Leadership in 2015 and named a Fellow of the Society for In-Vitro Biology in 2017. She received the Iowa State University Award for Achievement in Intellectual Property in 2017 and the Outstanding Achievement in Research Award in 2020.
“Genetic engineering systems are critical tools to advance crop improvement efforts,” Wang said, “but the tools are not easy to use. One of my areas of focus is to optimize and simplify these technologies so they are more available to scientists around the world.”
As she looks ahead, she said that training and mentoring the next generation of scientists is something she finds most rewarding.
“We still have much work to do,” Wang said. “This work is an important investment in building capacity for the future of food production.”