UW soil scientist, molecular biology professor recognized for research efforts

Mike Zhu stands at left and Bret Hess at right.
Ecosystem science and management Assistant Professor Mike Zhu, left, received the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station’s Early Career Research Achievement Award from Interim Dean Bret Hess during the college’s awards and holiday celebration in Laramie Tuesday. Recipients receive $750 in real money. 

A soil scientist who received the Early Career Research Award from the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station drew high praise from a Senior Fellow with the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, and the scientist who received the Outstanding Research Award has groundbreaking research in molecular biology.

Mike Zhu, assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, was recognized Tuesday with the early career award, and Professor Mark Gomelsky in the Department of Molecular Biology was presented the outstanding research award.

“The scientists who were nominated for this year’s research awards were all excellent contributors to the WAES and the research mission of the college,” said Bret Hess, interim dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and associate dean for research. “I found it quite gratifying to have awarded seed grants through the AES competitive grants program to both of this year’s winners. It was neat to know that the experiment station supported a piece of each of the scientist’s exceptional careers.”

Scott Fendorf, Huffington Professor of Earth Science and senior associate dean in Stanford’s School of Earth Science, was emphatic in his praise of Zhu.

Scott Fendorf, Huffington Professor of Earth Science and senior associate dean in Stanford’s School of Earth Science, was emphatic in his praise.

“I would argue Professor Zhu is in fact one of the three leading experts on manganese minerals in any field, at any career stage across the globe,” he said.

Zhu joined the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources in 2013.

Zhu’s most innovative work involves phosphate, said Fendorf, and this year Zhu received a $424,365 Faculty Early Career Development Program award from the National Science Foundation. The grant began Aug. 15 and ends July 31, 2023. Funds not yet disbursed for fiscal years 2021 and 2022 will bring the grant total to $676,163.

Zhu’s research is primarily focused on the fundamental aspects of soil chemical and mineralogical processes and their applications to understanding nutrient cycling and the fate of metals in soils at molecular to ecosystem scales, noted Pete Stahl, a professor in the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Zhu has received about $1.7 million in funding, has published 34 papers, and has graduated two Ph.D. students since he arrived at UW, said Stahl, director of the Wyoming Recreation and Restoration Center in the college.

Zhu serves as an associate editor for Soil Science Society of America Journal, and Geochemical Transactions.

Gomelsky has had two scientific papers named among the top 100 most influential in the Journal of Bacteriology since its inception in 1916.

Mark Gomelsky sits in chair.
Molecular biology Professor Mark Gomelsky received the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station’s Outstanding Research Award. Recipients receive $1,000.

The Gomelsky papers, concerning cyclic dimeric guanosine monophosphate (c-di-GMP), were published in 2005 and helped develop a new field in bacterial signaling. Studies on c-di-GMP opened ways for designing new types of antibacterial drugs.

If scientists could trick bacteria into dispersing, antibiotics could destroy bacteria more readily.

“Speaking bacterial language helps us design “psychological warfare” agents against pathogens,” Gomelsky said in an earlier interview. “We want to trick bacteria into making bad decisions during infection.”

By combining antibiotics, which are regular bacterial “warfare” agents, with drugs that meddle with bacterial “minds,” Gomelsky said bacteria can be eradicated more efficiently.

His long-term interest in light sensing in bacteria has led him to developing innovative tools to control cellular processes using light. These tools may be used in the treatment of obesity, immune disorders and tissue regeneration.

Gomelsky has published 87 scientific publications, is a highly cited

scientist, has received several million dollars in funding from federal agencies and was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.