UD alumnus wins Presidential Early Career Award
David McNear, a UD alumnus, has won the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
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8:46 a.m., Feb. 13, 2009----University of Delaware alumnus David McNear has won the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor the federal government gives to scientists and engineers beginning their independent research careers.

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McNear earned his doctorate in 2006 and was a postdoctoral associate from 2006-07 in the University of Delaware environmental soil chemistry research group headed by Donald L. Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Plant and Soil Sciences.

The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE, was created in 1996 to honor and support young professionals at the outset of their research careers in science and technology. Eleven federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture participate in the awards program.

McNear was nominated by Nancy Cavalero, the program manager for the soil processes program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Research Initiative, in response to a proposal he wrote to her program in 2008.

McNear's proposal was ranked third out of 80 submissions, the highest for a new investigator within five years of receiving a doctorate.

The award includes monetary compensation and the opportunity to meet with the president at an official awards reception at the White House.

McNear is an assistant professor of rhizosphere science in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Kentucky.

His postdoctoral position at the University of Delaware was funded by the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Support Competitive Research (EPSCoR), and he worked with Janine Sherrier, an associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, on an EPSCoR-funded project.

“We worked on a zinc hyperaccumlating plant and the affect of zinc hyperaccumulation on nitrogen fixation,” said Sherrier.

“I am truly humbled by this award,” said McNear. “It comes as a result of not only being a member of Don's group, but also the support of my wife and daughter and the wonderful collaborators that I am working with on the grant that garnered me the initial recognition.”

McNear's wife, Maria Labreveux, was a member of the faculty in the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Delaware State University who worked with the EPSCoR program.

Since 2007, Labreveux has been the program manager for the Kentucky Science and Engineering Foundation (KSEF), which promotes and invests in research in emerging areas of science and engineering.

As part of the first Delaware EPSCoR grant, Labreveux said she learned “the broader meaning of both promoting and performing research-producing tangible economic and social benefits for the state's constituency.”

“I've always loved science and research, but my recent experiences promoting research and development have given me an even greater appreciation for the importance of science and engineering in the growth and well-being of any society,” Labreveux added.

Sparks' environmental soil chemistry research group, which is in UD's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, has produced two other Presidential Early Career Award winners.

Philip Jardine, who earned a master's degree in 1983 and is a distinguished research staff scientist in the Subsurface Science Group in the Environmental Sciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, earned the award in 1996.

Dan Strawn, who earned a doctorate in 1999 and is an associate professor of soil chemistry and director of the environmental soil chemistry program in the Department of Plant, Soil and Entomological Sciences at the University of Idaho, received the award in 2003.

“Donald Sparks has an incredible gift of scientific vision which he openly shares with fellow researchers and students,” said Jardine. “He encourages creative thinking and independence of research and couples this with his superior mentoring skills.”

“I was very fortunate to be mentored by Don Sparks through my graduate education,” said Strawn. “As a result of Don's outstanding advising, graduates from the Delaware soil chemistry program are well-trained to succeed as leaders in science.”

Sparks has mentored more than 50 graduate students and about 30 post-docs in his 30 years at the University of Delaware and was the first recipient of the University of Delaware's Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Student Advising and Mentoring Award in 2002.

“I have had an incredible group of students over the years,” said Sparks. “By far the most satisfying part of my career is working with young scientists and seeing them go on and accomplish things. I can't think of anything that reflects more positively on UD and on our program than to have graduates go on and be successful.”

“The Sparks research group offers unique opportunities to go to national labs, be exposed to cutting-edge equipment, go to national and international meetings, give talks and network,” said McNear. “Since this award comes so early in my career, it is most certainly a reflection on Don's efforts and my experiences in his group.”

Article by Katie Ginder-Vogel
Photo by Danielle Quigley