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Mark A. Philbrick, Mark A. Philbrick, BYU
Dr. Joel Griffitts has been doing groundbreaking research in the relationship between bacteria and plants, including how plants can cultivate "friendly" bacteria.

PROVO — At first glance they look like an artist's sculptures arrayed on a desert landscape. But Brian Jensen's work is only 400 microns tall, about the thickness of three human hairs, stacked.

The dark spiky obelisks are actually an array the Ph.D. electro-engineering researcher has created to painlessly inject drugs into patients. Jensen has also developed micro-needles that use electrical force to push DNA into egg cells. This type of innovation will create improved tools for genetics researchers to pursue new discoveries, such as cures for genetic disorders.

Scientists like Jensen are helping to build a growing legacy of scientific research at Brigham Young University — putting the university on the map in scientific communities. Increasingly, BYU scientific research has caught the attention, and funding, of the National Science Foundation. Jensen is one of a total of five BYU scientists who in the past two years have earned one of NSF's top awards. The CAREER award is given to the most promising junior, nontenured, researchers in the nation. This award not only recognizes their outstanding research, but it also honors scholars who are dedicated teachers. The awards come with five-year grants between $400,000 and $650,000.

"This national science foundation funding will allow me to support more graduate and undergraduate students in doing the research, and that's important because that's a vital part of their education. So, I try to involve anywhere from three to four, both graduate and undergraduate, students for each of the projects that I'm working on," Jensen said.

BYU's emphasis in including not only graduate students, but undergraduates in cutting-edge science research means current scientists are creating and inspiring the next generation of scientists. The university has experienced an increase in funding not only from NSF but from the National Institutes of Health, and other grants.

"Twenty years ago I think there was very little federal funding coming into the university. There was some. Whereas now if you look at this department (mechanical engineering) for example, we are averaging about $3 million to $5 million of research a year, which is much, much higher than we would have been 20 years ago," Jensen said.

"I'm integrating so much research into my teaching, and helping students understand not just the nuts and bolts of a particular discipline, but here is how the process of discovery works," said Joel Griffitts, who has a doctorate degree in microbiology.

Griffitts, also a recent CAREER award winner, is doing ground-breaking research in the relationship between bacteria and plants. He has been researching how certain plants actually cultivate "friendly" bacteria. In turn, plants such as alfalfa, soybeans and peanuts, benefit from the nitrogen fertilizer these bacteria produce.

He hopes to discover the genetic triggers that cause bacteria to become helpful to plants, which could lead to plants that can produce their own fertilizer, without the need for petroleum-based nitrogen.

In addition to his research, Griffitts includes his work in his undergraduate classes. He also spends time teaching high school students about science. Griffitts says this emphasis in sharing education at BYU is critical in showing young students that entering into complex scientific research is possible for them and how to do it.

The National Science Foundation has recognized BYU's emphasis. "It also shows that BYU will continue to provide a good environment where research and education can work together to prepare younger scientists to take on the responsibility of doing high-quality and responsible science," Griffitts said.

In the past decade, the number of BYU's federal grants for science has continued to grow. BYU spokesman Michael Smart pointed out that in 2010, the university experienced an unusual upswing in grants, but anticipated that it may decrease or level off in 2011.

"As we continue to hire a lot of talented young faculty from around the country, we expect these awards to continue. This ability to hire is made possible by the fact that BYU is 10th in the country in the number of alums who go on to earn Ph.D.s," Smart said.

"It's great for the students. It means they get a better education," Jensen said. "I personally just love the feeling that I'm learning new things, discovering new things, and coming to a new realization of how the world works."

email: gfattah@desnews.com