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A master teacher * Perseverance pays for Pfiesteria researcher * Skaggs honored for “most significant” recent contribution to U.S. agriculture



A master teacher

Dr. Robert Beckmann is known for his excellence in teaching.For Dr. Robert L. Beckmann, there is no secret formula to being a good teacher: “You just have to take it one student at a time,” he says.

During his 22-year career with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, that approach has earned him a reputation as one of the best professors in North Carolina.

In April, he received his fourth teaching award, an Award of Excellence in Teaching from the University of North Carolina. The award, which carries a $7,500 prize, is bestowed upon one educator from each UNC campus. Beckmann is an associate professor of botany and biological sciences.

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Perseverance pays
for Pfiesteria researcher

It has been a decade since a mysterious marine microbe was found in fish cultures at N.C. State University — 10 years since Dr. JoAnn M. Burkholder and her associates began their breakthrough studies on a dinoflagellate now seen as one of the most menacing threats to the state’s fisheries.

Dr. JoAnn Burkholder continues to receive accolades for her Pfiesteria research. The ramifications of their work continue to be felt in Mid-Atlantic states where Pfiesteria piscicida has been found. Recognizing the significance of the research, several organizations have presented Burkholder with prestigious awards. In just the first few months of 1998, the associate professor of aquatic botany and marine sciences won the Conservationist of the Year award from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the world’s largest federation of scientists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and the Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation.

Burkholder is largely credited with identifying Pfiesteria and documenting a strange 24-stage life cycle in which the one-celled microbe changes from a harmless organism into a toxic predator that poisons fish and then eats their flesh.

She holds that, in all likelihood, Pfiesteria has been in the Mid-Atlantic region for thousands of years as a non-toxic predator but that human influences — particularly the discharge of sewage from cities and towns and nutrients from agricultural operations into shallow, poorly flushed waters — have slowly changed the environment in ways that encourage the organism’s fish-killing activity.

A decade's worth of research has implicated an unusual organism's toxins in massive fish kills in the Mid-Atlantic.Her research has implicated pfiesteria’s toxins in massive fish kills and mysterious human ailments. North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound and rivers emptying into the lower Chesapeake Bay are among the areas that have been affected.

To further efforts to understand Pfiesteria and similar organisms, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences opened a 3,400-square-foot aquatic botany laboratory this summer.

—Dee Shore

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Skaggs honored for
contribution to U.S. ag

Dr. Skaggs is a professor of biological and agricultural engineering. An honor reserved for the person deemed to have made the most significant contribution to American agriculture during the previous five years has been awarded to one of N.C. State University’s foremost scientists, Dr. R. Wayne Skaggs.

Skaggs — a Williams Neal Reynolds Professor and Distinguished University Professor of biological and agricultural engineering — was the 23rd recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Award.

Skaggs was honored in late 1997 for his efforts to find ways that farmers can better manage their use of water while protecting the environment. He and his graduate students are credited with developing a computer simulation model used around the world for designing and improving subsurface drainage systems for agricultural lands. Skaggs' research has led to better water use and environmental protection on drained farmland worldwide.

Themodel quantifies the effects of drainage and water-table management systems on crop yields as well as pollutant losses from agricultural fields. Thus, it is now possible to address both agricultural production and environmental goals.

The models also have been applied to describe the hydrology of wetlands. His contributions in this area were highlighted in a recently published National Research Council report on wetlands. The ability to describe the hydrology of wetlands makes it possible to better identify and protect these fragile and ecologically important areas.

Such efforts have earned Skaggs a reputation as a leading expert on soil drainage, water-table management and wetland hydrology. He has received N.C. State’s highest award, the Alexander Quarles Holladay Medal for Excellence, and the University of North Carolina’s highest honor, the O. Max Gardner Award.

The von Humboldt award was especially gratifying for Skaggs because it provided a means for enabling a younger scientist to further her studies and, thus, to carry on his and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ efforts to improve agricultural yields while protecting environmental quality. As winner, Skaggs was invited to select a student to receive a $5,000 Alfred Toepfer Scholarship. As a result, Patricia Haan spent six weeks in Germany and six weeks in Italy conducting water-quality research as part of her doctoral studies in biological and agricultural engineering.

—Dee Shore

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