Ian Wallace, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nevada, Reno, recently received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his work in the area of plant biomass research and its renewable potential.
The CAREER awards support junior faculty in the early stages of their career, with the goal of establishing them in one area of research. In addition, the CAREER program equally values research and educational innovation, and Wallace's lab was given a $915,280 federal grant that encompasses both areas for five consecutive years.
"What we specifically got funded to do is to study how plants decide to make more or less cellulose," Wallace said. "Cellulose is one of the most abundant, renewable materials on the planet, and if we want to transition to more renewable fuels and value-added products, we need to eventually get plants to produce more cellulose for our needs."
In nature, there are examples of plant tissues that make more or less cellulose, and Wallace's research aims to figure out how plants decide to regulate it. They are trying to understand how the enzyme complex called the cellulose synthase complex is regulated to make more or less cellulose. This work is a further extension of the lab's research into the plant cell wall and its benefits.
"In addition to the research directions we're going to pursue, this funding will provide a lot of educational opportunities for students in my lab, and also students in the greater biochemistry department," Wallace said.
He said that some of the funding supports international training experiences for graduate students for them to have the opportunity to go to other labs around the world, picking up new techniques not specifically available at the University.
"Part of the funding will be used to establish a new experimental techniques course for undergraduates here at the University," Wallace said.
Wallace is grateful that he has received a grant to continue his research for the next five years. He also says that this length of time is perfect for doctoral students, as that is how long it takes them to navigate through the degree program.
"I think the National Science Foundation likes to make these five-year awards so that you can really train good people to become good scientists," he said.
This grant will help Wallace's lab immensely, paying for chemicals and lab services, graduate students, and travel expenses so that they can attend conferences and advertise their work.
Wallace has been in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources since 2013. He obtained his bachelor's degree and his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has been working on this research for the past eight years.
When asked why this research was important to him, as well as the grant, Wallace's answer was simple.
"I would like my kids to grow up in a world where we depend on renewable energy, and not just that, but produce day-to-day chemicals, everything from asphalt to plastics, in a sustainable, energy-neutral way."
While Wallace does not think that biomass is the solution to all problems, he does think that people can generate a lot of everyday products through renewable energy and biomass.
"I hope that this work will essentially lead us in the direction where we can understand how to actually do that, because right now I feel like we don't have a great handle on it," Wallace said. "And I hope that over the next five years, or maybe over the next 25 years, we understand plant biomass synthesis enough that we could actually engineer a feedstock plant that will produce biomass all the time and lots of it, so that we can move toward better sustainable fuels and products."