Ward, Hileman chosen for exclusive National Academy of Sciences research event

By Olga Kuchment

Two plant scientists in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology were among 50 young American scientists chosen to discuss cutting-edge research in Japan in December.

Lena Hileman

Lena Hileman, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was amazed to receive a formal letter from the National Academy of Sciences inviting her to the Japanese-American Kavli Frontiers of Science meeting in 2007. By the time Joy Ward, also associate professor, got a letter inviting her to the 2010 conference, she had heard about the meetings from her colleague but still felt surprised and honored, she said. The biennial meeting aims to spur cross-border and cross-disciplinary collaborations between American and Japanese scientists, and convenes on alternate years in the United States and Japan. This year it took place Dec. 3-5 in Chiba, Japan. Members of the academy — distinguished scholars in 31 scientific disciplines — choose 50 early-career American scientists to attend each year. In turn, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science chooses 50 young Japanese researchers.

Joy Ward

“Many different people put in recommendations at a national level and it’s impossible to know who the recommendation came from,” Hileman said. After her initial trip in 2007, she was invited to help organize the next two meetings. Ward has now been asked to help plan the conference in 2012 in Irvine, Calif.

That both were chosen “shows that our department has become highly visible nationally,” Ward said. For instance, “Lena studies how different flower structures have evolved on a molecular level. I study the effects of climate change on past and future plant evolution. These are areas the national academy considers important.”

In Chiba, the scientists heard talks on super-resolution imaging, collective intelligence, the brain/machine interface and the applications of graphene — a material highlighted by the Nobel Prize in Physics this fall — among other topics. Hileman helped organize a session on how the pre-natal environment can influence an adult’s risk for obesity.

Hileman and Ward returned to Kansas with ideas for new collaborations. Ward met a Japanese researcher who also studies tree rings. Her focus is glacial plant physiology and his is solar cycles.

“He could span further back in the past and also work with me on improving our carbon dating capacity,” Ward said. “It would be a win-win situation.”

One of Hileman’s projects is to understand why flower petals seem to have evolved different textures to entice different pollinators. She met a materials scientist who studies how surfaces interact with light.

“So we talked of working together to assay these biological materials,” Hileman said, “to determine if these structures really do respond differently to light.”

Both Hileman and Ward said they felt motivated to learn more about other fields.

“From reading journals we gain a sense of what’s new in different fields of science, but I didn’t know how a physicist actually goes about, day to day, discovering new things, or how a neurologist does,” Ward said. “But when you go to this meeting they actually show you how they learn what they learn. I got a better perspective of what goes on in their labs and how I might integrate into work with other Japanese scientists. Because of the Kavli Symposium, I will also be a better collaborator with someone even across campus right here at KU.”

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