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BYU biologist receives White House's top young faculty distinction

Professor is only third BYU faculty member to earn Presidential Early Career Award

BYU professor Joel Griffitts rang in the New Year with some news straight from the President of the United States: He’s been named one of the brightest young researchers and educators in the country.

The professor of microbiology and molecular biology was recently awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, becoming only the third BYU faculty member ever to receive the distinction.

Griffitts, whose research focuses on symbiotic plant-microbe interactions, was one of 102 faculty across the country to receive the “highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their research careers.”

The Stanford-trained biologist was also awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2011, an honor given to the most promising young faculty in the country. Griffitts has served actively as a scientific review panelist for the NSF, which nominated him for the Presidential Early Career Award.

“I believe this award recognizes a commitment to integrating research and education—which is why having BYU as home base has been a huge advantage,” Griffitts said. “I’m thrilled to represent BYU this way and I feel a responsibility to live up to the commission to be an effective scientific leader.”

Griffitts’ lab, which includes one postdoctoral fellow, two graduate students and a dozen undergraduate students, is investigating various aspects of host-microbe communication relating to bacterial infection.

Currently his team is studying relationships between plants and soil bacteria that boost crop productivity. They are working to understand why certain plants and bacteria are incompatible at the molecular level.

“Yes, we feel a little bit like relationship counselors—and these relationships are proving to be far more complicated than anticipated,” Griffitts explained. His team’s work has been published in several top scientific journals, including Science.

Griffitts graduated from Stanford in 1999 and earned his PhD at the University of California-San Diego in 2004. After carrying out postdoctoral research at Stanford for two additional years, Griffitts was hired to BYU’s faculty in 2006. He was appointed as an associate professor in 2012.

Griffitts joins 2007 honoree Adam Woolley (chemistry) and 2012 honoree Christopher Mattson (mechanical engineering) as the only three BYU professors to have received the award.

“This honor reflects so many contributions by people who have nurtured and mentored me over the years, and by some really talented researchers in my lab,” Griffitts said. “This award goes to a whole team of talented and generous people.”

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BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology, Joel Griffitts.

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Professor Griffitts' research focuses on bacteria found on plants. Here, a tiny nodule on the root houses special bacteria that turns nitrogen into food for the plant.

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BYU professor Joel Griffitts is one of only three BYU faculty members to earn a Presidential Early Career Award.
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