Two UGA faculty members receive CAREER grants from National Science Foundation

Two University of Georgia researchers have been awarded Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF)

Brian Kvitko and Gaelen Burke, both faculty members in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, were awarded the five-year grants this year.

Both Burke’s and Kvitko’s teams will use the CAREER grants, which have an emphasis on education, to develop research-based learning materials to distribute to local middle schools.

A plant pathologist, Kvitko’s research focuses on plants and how their immune systems respond to potential diseases. Kvitko will teach plant and plant-disease science to enhance students’ knowledge of plant pathology.

His long-term objective is to understand the mechanisms by which bacteria are targeted by the plant’s immune system. One of the areas of focus is on sulfur, an essential element for life. When plants activate their immune system, it appears to limit available sulfur, Kvitko said. This blocks the bacteria’s ability to grow in plant tissue.

“We know that plants have specialized receptors that let them detect invaders and pathogens. We know they can activate a defense response that protects them. What we don’t know is exactly what that means. What is the defense response and how does it suppress microbes?” Kvitko said. “Those are some of the objectives we want to really focus on during this research.”

An entomologist, Burke focuses her research on the parasitoid wasp, a natural enemy of agricultural pest insects. She studies the relationships the wasps have with certain viruses that help the wasp kill insect pests to try and understand how those relationships originate and how they function.

Once the five-year grant research period is over, Burke believes her team might be able to manipulate these viruses to better kill pest insects. “If we didn’t have grants from the National Science Foundation or other funding sources, we wouldn’t be able to hire the people to do the work. We wouldn’t be able to afford the reagents that we need. If you compared the lab to a small business, this would be like the bread and butter to keep us going,” Burke said.

The funding for both scientists totals nearly $1 million, which will help fund postdoctoral and graduate students to enhance their education, gain valuable research experience and help develop these important projects.

By Clint Thompson

Kvitko and Burke
Brian Kvitko and Gaelen Burke, two faculty members in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, were granted nearly $1 million to support lab work and develop learning materials for middle schoolers. (Photo by Merritt Melancon)