Biology professor Joel Griffitts received an early Christmas present Dec. 23, 2013, when he discovered he would receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
This prestigious award is the highest government award presented to engineers and scientists who are in early steps of their independent research.
Griffitts, one of 20 people nominated for this award by the National Science Foundation, was surprised and a tad skeptical upon reading the e-mail stating he had won.
“I came in and opened my e-mail, and I said, ‘Do we think this looks legitimate?’ I mean, I was definitely surprised; I didn’t think I would be in the running for such a great honor,” Griffitts said. “Ideas are flowing, and I feel like there is a new or higher expectation, and I want to live up to that without getting too out of balance.”
The micro and molecular biology professor’s research has been focused primarily on understanding compatibility between bacteria and crops, with the potential result of being able to grow more efficient and eco-friendly crops.
Griffitts explained that bacteria can deliver nitrogen much more carefully and accurately into a plant.
“Some of these bacteria don’t get along with the plant the way they ought to, and we’re trying to understand why,” he said.
Paul “Skip” Price, a postdoctoral fellowship scholar who works closely with Griffitts, explained that their research is “useful in trying to limit nitrogen in fertilizer.” This limitation is potentially better for plants and crops, as well as the environment.
Griffitts’ fellow colleagues said he embodies someone who has a true passion for the science and for his research; that same enthusiasm is mirrored in the opinions of his research assistants.
“He has a passion for what he does, and a passion for what we’re doing and for the science,” Price said.
“He’s always logical, and I like the way he thinks. He has been very easy to work with,” said Clarice Harrison, an undergraduate student studying molecular biology.
In addition to this research, Griffitts also works with local high schools in an educational outreach program. Harrison, in addition to helping with lab research, has been “the in-between person between the lab and all the high school students” which helps to increase high school students’ passion and interest in science.
Griffitts was quick to explain that most of the credit should go to his research team.
“This is really a team effort. This is an award that’s going to a team of people who are working on all of this right now, and all those that have worked with me in the past,” Griffitts said.