Six William Neal Reynolds Professors uphold the College’s strategic vision and goals through impactful research endeavors.
In 1950, William Neal Reynolds, a long-time president and board chairman of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., established the Reynolds Professorships at N.C. State University to recognize and support outstanding faculty achievement in research, teaching and extension. According to the endowment agreement, the professorships “will be for the purpose of selecting and retaining in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ faculty and staff great scholars, great teachers, great scientists and great interpreters.”
Since then, N.C. State and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have awarded 88 William Neal Reynolds Professorships. The most recent class of William Neal Reynolds professors includes a soil scientist, an entomologist, two plant pathologists and two food scientists.
Here, those WNR professors share stories of their work, its value – and how their activities support the mission and goals of the College.
David Bird, Plant Pathology
Research Program: Nematodes infect up to half the world’s human population, and crop plants and livestock have reduced yield from nematode infection — leading to malnutrition, loss of income and inefficient use of precious farmland. My team acquires fundamental knowledge about the complex communication between nematode and host. Our goal is to disrupt that molecular dialog as an effective means of achieving safe nematode control.
The value to North Carolina and beyond: Elimination of all plant-parasitic nematodes from North Carolina farms would be equivalent to an across-the-board increase of yield by 15 percent. Animal producers would no longer need to drench (treat livestock for parasites), and domestic pets would no longer need an ongoing regimen for prevention of nematodes such as heartworm. Increased yield on subsistence crops (such as plantain, which suffers up to 60 percent loss to nematodes) would have global impact. Of course, complete elimination of nematodes is unlikely, but the impact of even modest control would contribute hugely to North Carolina, U.S. and global agriculture.
Furthering the mission of the College: The core CALS mission is the generation and dissemination of knowledge, to enhance the practice of agriculture and biology. Although my specific research topic is narrow, our approaches are broad, and the technology especially is applicable to many systems.
The future of this work: From the lab to the field! The world is depending on the research that we and our colleagues are performing in the lab being reduced to practice. It is unrealistic to think the nematode problem will be solved in the next 10 or 25 years. But there will be many successes, and I hope to contribute.
MaryAnne Drake, Food Science
Research Program: Sensory perception drives everything we do, from food selection and consumption to the cars we drive. My research program is focused on understanding how unit operations in food processing influence flavor chemistry (volatile compounds) and ultimately consumer perception of finished products. We also work to identify drivers of consumer liking for food and non-food products.
The value to North Carolina and beyond: High-quality, appealing foods are crucial to North Carolina consumers and North Carolina agriculture. This same concept applies to consumers and food industry nationally and globally.
Furthering the mission of the College: Assisting food processors with consistent manufacture of high-quality and appealing foods and producing educated and experienced individuals ready to enter the workforce are key missions of the university.
The future of this work: One of the many things that I love about my job is that trends in the food industry come and go, but high-quality, appealing and flavorful foods never go out of style.
Dean Hesterberg, Soil Science
Research program: Our research in soil chemistry addresses both agricultural and environmental issues. We develop basic knowledge of chemical processes that control plant uptake and offsite movement of plant nutrients and toxic heavy metals.
The value to North Carolina and beyond: Our research has pioneered the use of advanced analytical techniques to determine how phosphorus and toxic metals bind in soils and groundwater aquifers. This knowledge helps to inhibit movement of phosphorus from agricultural lands to surface waters, which can hurt water quality. It also aims to decrease human exposure to toxic substances in water and food crops. For example, we recently assessed whether toxic metals from coal ash in the Dan River spill would adversely affect agriculture, which alleviated farmers’ concerns about planting irrigated crops and about watering livestock with water from the Dan River.
Furthering the mission of the College: We create fundamental knowledge that will help position CALS to be a leader in agricultural and environmental sciences, enabling soil management strategies for meeting future food demands while maintaining environmental stewardship.
The future of this work: My aim is to develop effective approaches for using fundamental discoveries in soil chemistry to develop high-impact solutions to our most challenging problems in agriculture and environmental pollution. A central issue is how to best utilize very specific knowledge gained from (sub-) micron to atomic scale measurements in making management decisions in the field.
Lee-Ann Jaykus, Food Science
Research program: I am the lead investigator of the norocore project. This is an interdisciplinary effort to understand and control foodborne viruses. My group works on improving detection and inactivation of viruses in the food chain.
The value to North Carolina and beyond: Noroviruses are the leading cause of acute viral gastroenteritis. They are also the most common cause of foodborne illness. Better ways to control transmission of these viruses will significantly improve public health.
Furthering the mission of the College: To control norovirus contamination along the food chain, we must understand production agriculture, food processing and food preparation practices. We must also understand the biological properties of the virus. Together, this knowledge allows us to put the puzzle pieces together to positively impact human health.
The future of this work: Increased awareness of the impact of norovirus on human health and reductions in disease burden in the United States and abroad.
Jean Ristaino, Plant Pathology
Research program: Plant pathogens are responsible for devastating diseases on a wide range of host crops, natural vegetation and forestry worldwide and are a threat to global food security. We work on one of the most notorious disease, late blight caused by Phytophthora infestans. It was the first species in the genus described and left a path of devastation on potato in its wake in the United States, Ireland and Europe in the 19th century leading to the Irish famine. Phytophthora diseases are not just of historical interest, but represent a significant and emerging biosecurity threat, in large part due to increases in plant movement via international trade.
The value to North Carolina and beyond: We study the population genetics of historical epidemics and present-day late blight outbreaks. The disease is still a threat to U.S. potato and tomato growers. Our recent work has used next-generation sequencing tools to study migration of strains globally. We are also involved in describing new species of Phytophthora and developing tools for identification. We also conduct diagnostics workshops globally to improve capacity and infrastructure in the developing world to manage plant disease, since plant pathogens do not recognize borders.
Furthering the mission of the College: We are currently working globally on issues of the impact of emerging pests and pathogens on global food security. Climate change will increase outbreaks and spread the range of many diseases and pests. Many emerging threats impact food production in East Africa and Southeast Asia. However, these same pathogens can pose a threat to food production in the United States, so building capacity abroad makes economic sense.
The future of this work: I am currently leading a team of faculty to form an Emerging Pest and Pathogen Innovation lab at N.C. State. We envision using the latest technologies to detect, diagnose and mitigate plant diseases and pests that threaten food security. This will involve global surveillance networks and next-generation sequencing of pests and pathogens. I have become more involved in solving global emerging disease outbreaks in recent years and expect my program will continue to move in this direction.
Brian Wiegmann, Entomology
Research Program: We use genomics tools to understand the patterns and processes in the evolutionary tree (Tree of Life) of insects, particularly flies, their biodiversity, biology and behavior, and how their habits have changed through their 240-million-year history. Flies are important as agricultural pests, disease vectors, pollinators and decomposers and so have a major impact on man and the environment.
The value to North Carolina and beyond: Our work organizes and interprets biological diversity. How many species are there now, and how many have there been in the past? And how are they interrelated? This information is critically important for understanding the context and genetic consequences of climate change, habitat degradation or loss, and the impacts of invasive species and urbanization. Through better knowledge of insect species and their biology, we can predict and manage the impact insects have in North Carolina and the impact from species that move here from other locations.
Furthering the mission of the College: Entomological research is a key component of all aspects of the College’s mission.
The future of this work: We are at the crossroads of yet another major revolution in the methods used to gather genetic data and analyze large complex data sets. The power of big new data sets allows us to be much more certain about the biological processes responsible for insect diversity. Within 10 years we will have an unprecedented understanding of how genomes are shaped by the environment and how specific adaptations influence the success and sustainability of insect species and their biological interactions. Within the next 25 years, species information, genetic data and their environmental context will be more naturally integrated across disciplines.
— compiled by Natalie Hampton and Suzanne Stanard