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Whitacre, Wilson named 2015 OSU Whatley Award recipients

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Oklahoma State University’s Brian Whitacre and Gail Wilson have been named the 2015 recipients of the James A. Whatley Award for Meritorious Service in Agricultural Sciences.

The award was initiated in 1982 and is presented annually by OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources in recognition of outstanding research contributions that command national and international respect in their applicable career fields.

“Enhancing the rural infrastructure that supports agriculture and communities across Oklahoma and the region is Dr. Whitacre’s passion,” said Thomas G. Coon, DASNR vice president, dean and director. “Though some may see rural development and agricultural science as being unrelated, the fact that Dr. Whitacre views them as being intricately intertwined is part of what makes him so effective.”

Currently an associate professor of agricultural economics, one of the first things Whitacre did upon joining the OSU faculty in 2006 was to interact with people working and living in rural communities across the state, where he came to appreciate the sometimes dramatic differences among them.

“That connection continues and serves as a constant catalyst for innovative yet practical research that contributes to the improvement of the quality of life in rural areas with a particular focus on broadband access, healthcare and program evaluation,” said Mike Woods, professor and head of DASNR’s department of agricultural economics.

Important topics Whitacre’s work has highlighted include quantified and identified causes of the rural-urban “digital divide,” providing research-based insights into farm Internet use, the impact of broadband on rural migration, local retail sales tax collections and electronic medical record adoption by physicians.

Other crucial components of Whitacre’s research program include rural healthcare access and evaluation of programs that support rural communities, such as investments made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in rural Oklahoma water and sewage infrastructure and the Oklahoma Department of Commerce’s “Quality Jobs” incentive program.

Whitacre’s prolific record has been receiving significant recognition, among them the Southern Rural Development Centers honoring him as the 2011 recipient of the Bonnie Teater Community Development Early Career Achievement Award and the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association selecting him as its national 2014 Early Career Professional Administrative Leadership Award recipient.

A Sarkey’s Distinguished professor in DASNR’s department of natural resource ecology and management, Gail Wilson’s substantial research program has not only fundamentally increased knowledge about plant-fungal symbiosis but also has exhibited a tremendous influence on the professional development of her research collaborators, from faculty members to technicians to numerous undergraduate and graduate students.

Coon cites Wilson’s impressive track record of highly successful collaborations in team-based research that is both interdisciplinary and multi-institutional as being exemplary.

“Dr. Wilson’s research has substantial implications for agricultural land management and rangeland restoration because it shows that preservation of locally adapted complexes of soils, plants and soil organisms is important, and that can have a broad and meaningful scientific impact to grazing lands in the Great Plains and throughout the world,” he said.

An OSU faculty member since 2007, Wilson’s research has demonstrated that the mutualistic symbiosis between plants and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi plays a critical role in plant population dynamics, competition, composition and diversity, as well as responses to fire and grazing.

“Dr. Wilson’s program has been on the forefront of developing new research techniques and knowledge, which has provided multiple opportunities for collaborations and funding,” said Keith Owens, DASNR associate vice president with oversight responsibilities for the division’s statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system.

Wilson recently extended her collaborative research to combine signature fatty acid procedures with cutting-edge molecular methods and bioinformatics, joining state-of-the-art genomics, plant breeding and microbial ecology to provide agricultural producers, plant breeders and land restoration managers the information necessary to most effectively use arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in a variety of soil types and climatic conditions.

“Gail’s scientific inquiries are basic ecological science but with a very practical application for agricultural producers and land managers,” Owens said.

Wilson’s research has generated more than $5 million in grant funding during her time at OSU, much of which has been obtained through highly competitive grant programs from the National Science Foundation, USDA, U.S. Department of Defense and Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

Her recent research efforts in bioenergy feedstock production have resulted in additional collaborations with international scientists and research at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.

Whatley, in whose name the award is presented, was an animal geneticist who became director of the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station and then dean of the division, which is comprised of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and two statewide agencies: the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system. Whatley served OSU for 41 years.

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