National Science Foundation recognizes MU assistant professor

MU assistant professor received five-year grant from National Science Foundation

David Mendoza-Cozatl, MU assistant professor in the division of plant sciences, received the National Science Foundation’s CAREER grant. This extremely prestigious grant ensures $1 million over a five-year period to enable research and education.

“It’s a little bit of a scary feeling,” Mendoza-Cozatl said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. The foundation is really trusting you and your science. I really feel I need to give back and live up to what I said I can do.”

The grant is aimed at scientists who are at the beginning stages of their careers.

“It’s for setting up a career in terms of research and education,” said Heather Hunt, MU assistant professor of bioengineering. “The foundation thinks in terms of ‘This person is going to have a rock-star career ahead of them.’” 

Mendoza-Cozatl said his main research concerns how plants accumulate metals. People rely on plants to absorb nutritious metals like iron and zinc, which are essential and very important for health. Non-essential metals such a lead, mercury and chromium behave like essential metals but are not good for human consumption. These non-essential metals interfere with essential metals.

“We want healthy food with the right amount of good metals and not toxic metals,” Mendoza-Cozatl said.

Most plants’ ability to accumulate toxic metals also do some good, Mendoza-Cozatl said. After environmental contamination from the Industrial Revolution, plants have been used to clean up contaminated areas with a process called bioremediation. The process works by using plants to absorb harmful metals from the ground. Once the plant is removed, the metals it absorbed can be disposed of easily.

“It’s the true meaning of green technology,” Mendoza-Cozatl said. “We are using plants to get the job done.”

The CAREER grant has a strong focus on incorporating education with research, Mendoza-Cozatl said. This can mean working with outreach beyond simply training undergraduate students or teaching.       Mendoza-Cozatl’s project involved two main educational components. His lab is building an interdisciplinary connection between engineering and biology.

“The future of (agriculture) is more of a merging of plant sciences and engineering,” Hunt said. “It’s solving problems using engineering methodology. There are a lot of cool problems for us to solve.”

The second project involved bringing journalism students into the lab. Mendoza-Cozatl said he hoped it would relate what the lab does to a broader audience.

“When (the journalists) write about (science), they'll have first-hand experience and perspective about what it's like,” Mendoza-Cozatl said.

Mendoza-Cozatl is also part of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group. IPG is an umbrella community of 57 faculty members dedicated to research within the area of plant biology. It is part of Food for the 21st Century Program, which is funded through MU. Its research areas cover biochemistry, biological sciences, plant sciences, computer science and forestry.

“MU has a true reputation for collaboration,” IPG Director Robert Sharp said.

The IPG’s main theme is to study how plants react to changing environments. IPG focuses its studies on genetic diversity, on developmental mechanisms and on biotic and abiotic interactions, according to its website.

Sharp, who is also a professor in the division of plant sciences, was very involved in Mendoza-Cozatl’s hiring a year and a half ago. After Mendoza-Cozatl was hired, Sharp sat on his mentoring committee, a program designed for new faculty members.

Mendoza-Cozatl said that even though the National Science Foundation is giving the grant to his lab, it’s a more complicated process.

“NSF would have never given me a grant if it weren't for the institution of MU and the Bond Life Sciences Center,” Mendoza-Cozatl said.

Mendoza-Cozatl said he is excited for what the grant means to the program.

“It feels really good,” Mendoza-Cozatl said. “This is beginning of something, not the end goal.”

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