NatSci faculty and staff members honored with MSU awards

Published February 8, 2017

Four faculty and staff members from the College of Natural Science (NatSci) were honored at the 2017 Michigan State University Awards Convocation Feb. 7 for outstanding contributions to education and research.

Gary Mittelbach, professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, and David Tomanek, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, were among 10 MSU faculty members honored with a William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award. The new honorees bring the number of faculty honored since the award was established in 1952 to 541.

Gary Mittelbach

Mittelbach, who conducts his research at MSU’s W. K. Kellogg Biological Station, is an internationally recognized ecologist whose research has contributed novel and lasting insights into complex biological systems, particularly in regard to the ecological factors that contribute to patterns of diversity in natural landscapes. His laboratory catalyzed a new era in ecology, spearheading the move from observational to experimental approaches. Using aquatic systems to reveal the mechanisms and consequences of species interactions, his breakthrough research on freshwater fish showed conclusively that predation risk influences habitat use in prey and stimulated new thinking about how and why species coexist—one of the central questions in community ecology.

Mittelbach is among the world’s most cited researchers in ecology. He has published more than 100 scientific papers with more than 15,000 total citations. In 2012, Mittelbach published the highly regarded textbook “Community Ecology,” which quickly became the leading text in the field.

Mittelbach is also committed to educating the next generation of scientists. For more than 20 years, he has served as lead instructor in Population and Community Ecology, the primary ecology course for graduate students in MSU’s Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior program. He has mentored twelve Ph.D. students from his lab, all of whom continue to make important contributions at academic institutions.

David Tomanek

Tomanek works within a broad and vibrant area of materials research that seeks to discover and understand new materials that have the potential to disrupt the leading technologies for computing, sensing, communications and energy.

His research focuses on the development and application of numerical techniques to study structural, electronic, transport and optical properties of surfaces, low-dimensional systems and nanostructures. Tomanek’s work includes the discovery of several new materials and nanostructures that may underpin next generation technologies ranging from quantum information to communications and computing. In particular, he has made several important discoveries in the area of carbon nanotubes, which are one-dimensional wires with exceptional thermal, electrical, and mechanical properties. His work on carbon nanotubes and phosphorene has been particularly important, laying the groundwork for their use in a variety of emerging technologies.

Tomanek’s work on nanotubes and other carbon materials led to his receiving the 2008 Japan Carbon Award for Life-Time Achievement and the Korean Lee Hsun Research Award for Materials Science. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and a recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Distinguished Scientist Award. Tomanek, who is very engaged and influential in the international nanoscience community, is the author of a leading introductory book on carbon materials, “Guide through the Nanocarbon Jungle.”

Tomanek is an outstanding and innovative teacher at both the introductory and graduate levels. He has graduated fifteen Ph.D.’s, mentored nine postdocs and worked with seventeen undergraduate research students, including several supported by the NSF – Research Experience for Undergraduates in the Physics and Astronomy Department.

Kaillathe Padmanabhan

Kaillathe Padmanabhan, a senior academic specialist in NatSci’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB), received a Distinguished Academic Staff Award.

For more than 20 years, Kaillathe “Pappan” Padmanabhan has been an integral part of the information technology and computer facilities in BMB. As senior academic specialist, Padmanabhan has shepherded the department into the 21st century. Faculty members, staff, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students have all benefitted from his help, mentoring, patience and expertise.

Padmanabhan expertly manages the Macromolecular Computing Facility, which provides computational and graphics support for teaching and research to serve hundreds of students and faculty in and outside of the department. He also ensures that all relevant data on the administrative computer system is backed up, staff computers boot up and online courses function without a hitch; and he does all this with a smile.

In addition to all of his departmental responsibilities, Padmanabhan remains an academic and active structural biologist, who participates in the teaching and scientific life of the department. He teaches a graduate course on the use of computational methods to study protein and nucleic acid structures. In short, Padmanabhan is one of the most extraordinary staff scientists BMB has ever encountered.

Julie Wolfe Turner

Julie Wolfe Turner, a Ph.D. student in integrative biology professor Kay Holekamp’s lab, received an Excellence-in-Teaching-Citation.

Decades ago, H.G. Wells warned, “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.” Many teachers recognize the truth behind the caveat; Julie Wolfe Turner lives it. As a biologist, conservationist and educator, Turner understands that if we hope to leave our children and grandchildren a living, breathing, nourishing planet, education is the key, which is why she has devoted her research career to understanding how nature works, focusing her dissertation on the functional consequences of the intricate social interactions among hyenas. Turner has devoted her life to understanding nature and to infectiously sharing her knowledge with others. It is this passion that makes Turner such an amazing teacher, mentor and scholar.

Two qualities stand out among Turner’s many talents as an educator. First, she isn’t a pushover. Saving the planet requires a scientifically literate citizenry and learning to appreciate science as a way of knowing is not easy. Moreover, no one is well served, especially students, if courses don’t sharpen the critical thinking skills they will need in an increasingly complicated world. Turner, thus, sets very high standards. Turner’s second quality, compassion, lets students know they have a caring and knowledgeable guide as they rekindle their curiosity to learn, grow and achieve. She genuinely cares about her charges, whether they are students in a formal class, undergraduate volunteers working in the hyena lab or third graders benefitting from an outreach program she developed to bring the marvels of Africa’s wildlife to a public school in Michigan.

For more information on the awards convocation and a complete list of award recipients, visit -- http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2017/recognizing-exceptional-researchers-educators-and-community-members/.