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Larkins returning to lead life sciences

jbrehm2, February 23, 2012 | View original publication

Larkins returning to lead life sciences

Brian Larkins is coming back and will head efforts to strengthen UNL’s life sciences research.

The internationally recognized leader in the development of plant molecular biology and plant agricultural biotechnology will become associate vice chancellor for life sciences at UNL on July 1. Ronnie Green, Harlan vice chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and vice president of the University of Nebraska, and Ellen Weissinger, senior vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, made the announcement this week.

“The emphasis on life sciences is a central part of the focus on food, fuel, and water at UNL and the developing Nebraska Innovation Campus,” Green said. “Brian will coordinate the faculty of the life sciences across the UNL campus in his new role. We’re so pleased he’s taking this position.”

Larkins took leave in 2007-08 from University of Arizona where he was director of the School of Plant Sciences, to join UNL as associate vice chancellor for research and as the John F. Davidson, Ph.D., and Marian J. Fuller, Ph.D., Chair in Life Sciences, with faculty appointments in the Agronomy and Horticulture Department and the School of Biological Sciences. He will maintain his named chair and appointments.

Larkins is coming back, he said, to finish what he started. He’s excited about the leadership and vision at Nebraska, about new possibilities at Nebraska Innovation Campus. Born and raised in Nebraska, Larkins earned his bachelor's and doctoral degrees from UNL after growing up on a farm near Chester and graduating from York High School. He began his teaching and research career at Purdue University.

“In talking with Ronnie and Ellen, it’s evident the same goals and aspirations are there from five years ago, but the position is different. There will be more opportunity to help make things happen,” Larkins said.

“The fact that Brian has agreed to move to Lincoln signals both the priority we have attached to developments in the life sciences and the opportunities that lie ahead for UNL,” said Chancellor Harvey Perlman. “One of our major goals for the next six years is to increase the number of nationally recognized faculty. Brian’s membership in the National Academy helps with that objective.”

Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1996, Larkins has held both regents and endowed professorships in plant sciences and led a renowned research program at University of Arizona. He became head of the Plant Sciences Department at Arizona in 1988, and was appointed director of the School of Plant Sciences in 2010. His research over the past 40 years has focused on corn seed development and the way in whichstarch and protein influence the nutritional quality, digestibility and texture of the grain.

He has more than 200 research publications and more than 6,800 research citations. He also is a Fellow of both the American Society of Plant Biologists and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

The emphasis on life sciences is part of Chancellor Perlman’s comprehensive strategic plan for the life sciences, with the goal to create a comprehensive, well-coordinated and collaborative life sciences program. Larkins delivered the March 2007 chancellor’s lecture, “Feeding 9 Billion People and Other Challenges to Agriculture.”

Larkins’ research on the nutritional quality of corn and other cereal grains has significant implications for improving nutrition for people and livestock. His work has led to scientific advances, including new molecular biology techniques and a broader understanding of the molecular mechanisms that regulate seed development and protein production in corn seeds. This work matches well with UNL’s emphasis on food, fuel and water, Green said.

Larkins said life sciences research and innovation at Nebraska is on its way up.

“It’s one of the things I felt before, which is still true, in terms of the life sciences program. The University of Nebraska is a small fish in a big ocean, and therefore you have to really get people to work together synergistically to maximize what can be accomplished,” Larkins said. He points to the Plant Science Initiative, established at UNL in 1999, as an example of successful collaboration on which to build and use as a model for others.

“I’m excited to help modernize the undergraduate curriculum and contribute to the creation of an environment that prepares students for future job opportunities, and about helping to increase career opportunities for graduate students. Recruiting high-quality graduate students is essential to the development of a top-notch research program.”

Nebraska Innovation Campus, which was at the idea stage in 2007 but now on its way, really excites Larkins, he said.

“Nebraska Innovation Campus is just the catalyst that can make these other initiatives work even better. Research funding is hard to come by and research approaches have become multidisciplinary, so if you’re going to be competitive, you need to collaborate with researchers in a variety of areas.”

On a personal note, Larkins said it’s interesting and exciting that his roads keep leading him back home to Nebraska. He is getting married April 7 — and Ardie (originally from Michigan) is willing to leave Arizona(her home for 47 years) to share their new life in Nebraska. It’s “serendipitous, if not lucky” that he met Ardie, an oncology nurse, during his first wife’s cancer treatment. Larkins lost his wife Pamela Jo to cancer in November 2010.