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George Luther wins UD's Francis Alison Award

9:21 a.m., May 12, 2006--George W. Luther III, Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor of Marine Studies, has been named the 2006 winner of the Francis Alison Award, the University's highest faculty honor.

"George Luther's accomplishments as a teacher, a mentor and an internationally recognized researcher make him an outstanding selection for the 2006 Francis Alison Award," UD President David P. Roselle said. "With his impressive record of service and scholarship in a variety of scientific disciplines, he is well-deserving of this honor."

Provost Dan Rich announced the award at the Named Professors Dinner on May 10. "Dr. Luther exemplifies the best qualities of our faculty--cutting-edge research, a commitment to his students and the respect of his colleagues here and around the world," Rich said.

UD's Board of Trustees established the award in 1978 to recognize the scholarship, professional achievements and dedication of the faculty.

In addition to his professorship in the College of Marine Studies, Luther holds joint appointments in the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Plant and Soil Sciences. He also is an honorary professor at the School of Earth, Ocean and Planetary Sciences at Cardiff University in Wales.

“I really am thrilled to receive the Francis Alison Award,” Luther said. “There have been so many great scholars at the University who have received this award in the past--and so many great scholars here now--that it's very humbling to be named this year's recipient.

“At the same time, I'm thrilled for the students and postdocs I've worked with over the years, because this award also reflects on them and on their contributions to my work. None of us does our work without help.”

Luther, who describes himself as “a physical inorganic chemist who happened to make the switch to applied chemistry” in the field of oceanography, conducts research covering a wide range of areas. He has studied chemical reactions in the Black Sea and in Delaware's Inland Bays, where he investigated the cause of a fish kill that left 2 million bait fish dead in Rehoboth Bay.

In the mid-1990s, with the assistance of student Paul Brendel, Luther invented a gold-tipped microelectrode sensor that can be used to measure the amount of oxygen, hydrogen sulfide and metals that marine organisms can use to survive in various environments. The device is used in situ to assess environmental health in real time, and Luther collaborates with colleagues around the world.

“We've been everywhere-from the top of Yellowstone to the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “I'm interested in chemistry wherever it happens.”

Yellowstone, while far from the ocean, is the site of hydrothermal vents, the same phenomenon Luther has investigated nearly two miles deep in the Pacific Ocean, where scalding-hot vents are home to microbes that are among the planet's oldest life forms. That deep-sea research, part of the College of Marine Studies' “Extreme Voyage” series of expeditions, has potential industrial applications in such areas as food processing and drug manufacturing.

Luther's work in the Black Sea began with a groundbreaking 1988 expedition, and in 2003 he was one of the chief scientists representing the United States in a month-long international expedition funded by the National Science Foundation. He and his research team studied the unusual chemistry of the 700-mile-long, mile-deep Black Sea, of which nearly 90 percent is a zero-oxygen “dead zone” that supports only a few bacteria.

The nearly landlocked Black Sea was a lake dating back to the last Ice Age, Luther said. When sea levels rose, the Mediterranean Sea broke through, causing the bottom layer of the Black Sea today to be extremely salty. Little mixing occurs between the surface waters of the sea, which receive fresh water from rivers, and the dense, salty bottom waters. These natural conditions are compounded by serious pollution problems in the surrounding countries.

“The Black Sea research is one of those areas where many disciplines interface,” Luther said. “And, in general, much of my work is highly interdisciplinary and can include chemistry, environmental engineering, marine studies and plant science. The ecosystems of Yellowstone and the Inland Bays, for example, include microscopic plankton plants.”

During part of the Black Sea expedition, two teachers from Talley Middle School in Delaware joined the scientists on board the research vessel to help with the work and to take their experiences back to their classrooms. In conjunction with this project, students at the school formed a club to study various aspects of the Black Sea region and developed a web site reporting on topics from the sea's water quality to Turkish culture.

In addition to the scientific research, Luther said the opportunities to visit such ports as Istanbul and to work with colleagues from Turkey, Russia and Ukraine has enabled him to expand his knowledge of history and religion in the region.

A member of the University faculty since 1986, Luther was named the Harrington Professor of Marine Studies in 2000. He has served as associate dean of the College of Marine Studies, has advised more than 30 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and has published more than 165 journal articles, reports and book chapters.

In 2004, the Geochemical Society cited Luther's “innovative research in environmental geochemistry” and presented him its Clair C. Patterson Award. In selecting him for the award, the society wrote that Luther “has unselfishly and enthusiastically interacted with colleagues across a range of disciplines, including biologists, geologists, environmental chemists, environmental managers and public policy makers.

“His unabashed enjoyment for his research draws a steady stream of beneficiaries of all ages and educational backgrounds to his lab to learn environmental geochemistry.”

This January, he was awarded a five-year honorary professorship at Cardiff University, where he has collaborated since 1993 with Prof. David Rickard on research involving metal-sulfur geochemistry. Previously, in 1996, Cardiff named Luther a Distinguished Visiting Fellow.

Luther is editor-in-chief of Aquatic Geochemistry, associate editor of the research journals Marine Chemistry and Geochemical Transactions and a member of the geochemical editorial board of John Wiley & Sons, a major scientific and technical publisher. He has been appointed by the National Academy of Sciences to the U.S. National Committee for the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, a committee dedicated to fostering global interaction in the scientific research community.

In addition to his outreach work with middle school and high school science teachers, Luther frequently gives public lectures on environmental issues, and he has presented chemistry-based magic shows to spectators at UD's annual Coast Day celebration.

Article by Ann Manser
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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