K-State scientist to receive $1 million CAREER award

April 30, 2010

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- A lifelong interest in plants and science, nurtured by early days spent on her family's Georgia peanut farm, led Anna Whitfield to a career in the study of plants - and now to a $1 million National Science Foundation CAREER Award to continue her work at Kansas State University.

The five-year award will allow Whitfield, who is an assistant professor of plant pathology at K-State, to study how insects that serve as vectors in carrying viruses from one plant to another, respond to the virus themselves.

"The idea behind the proposal is that most viruses, particularly plant viruses, are transmitted by insect vectors," she said. "I am studying a virus that multiplies in the vector. I want to understand the effect of the virus on the insect vector."

The National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports the early career-development activities of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization, according to the NSF.

"The virus I am working with, maize mosaic virus, infects corn and sorghum, as well as the insect vector," she said. "It infects the nervous system and brain of the insect, but we don't see any dramatic effect on these insects, at least none that´s been documented. I'll be studying how the insect tolerates this infection and if it changes its behavior."

Although scientists have been studying insect interaction with other pathogens for some time, relatively little work has been done in insect interaction with viruses, she said.

Maize mosaic virus is in the same family of viruses as rabies. They have different hosts but are closely related. For that reason, Whitfield said, it is possible that the project's findings will shed light on viruses that infect vertebrate animals as well as plants.

"Dr. Whitfield is a leader in the study of vector/virus interactions," said John Leslie, head of K-State's department of plant pathology. "Her pioneering interdisciplinary work merges entomology and plant pathology and will result in changes in the management of diseases caused by plant viruses."

"The project results are expected to contribute to our understanding of how some organisms can tolerate or fight off viral pathogens," Whitfield said. "These findings may lead to the development of strategies to prevent transmission of viruses and/or the identification of unique molecules to combat virus diseases."

Whitfield earned a bachelor's degree in biological science at the University of Georgia, a master's degree in plant pathology at the University of California-Davis, and a Ph.D. in plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. She is an ancillary faculty member in K-State's Department of Entomology.

Because outreach is a key part of the project, Whitfield will pass the information she gleans from the research to the public by developing an interactive exhibit, "Arthropods as Vectors," for K-State's Insect Zoo.

She also will prepare new teaching tools for middle school science teachers that incorporate virology and virus-vector interactions. Those materials will be made available on the World Wide Web. In addition, she plans to mentor undergraduate students from under-represented groups as they conduct research projects studying the physiological outcomes of virus infection of arthropod vectors. A scientist-science fair participant "pen pal" program targeted to students in rural locations also is planned.

"She is an outstanding teacher, and her proposed interactions with middle school students will encourage them to think about and participate in agricultural research that also is cutting edge science," Leslie said. "The presence of scholars who excel in research while remaining in regular contact with students and the general populace is one of the plant pathology department's greatest strengths."

Whitfield has won numerous awards, including the Joel Dalrymple Award from the American Society for Virology in 2003. She has authored and co-authored numerous publications and research papers.

Four other K-State faculty members have received NSF CAREER awards this year, including Christine Aikens, assistant professor of chemistry, Jianhan Chen, assistant professor of biochemistry, Xinming (Simon ) Ou, K-State assistant professor of computing and information sciences, and Wenqiao Yuan, assistant professor in biological and agricultural engineering. A sixth NSF CAREER award announcement for a K-State faculty member is pending.
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Kansas State University

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