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Prof. Sparks selected for top USDA honor

Donald L. Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Plant and Soil Sciences and chairperson of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at UD
9:34 a.m., June 16, 2005--Donald L. Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Plant and Soil Sciences and chairperson of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Delaware, has been selected as the 2005 Sterling B. Hendricks Memorial Lecturer by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

“Don Sparks has built a world-class program in soil chemistry at the University of Delaware,” Robin W. Morgan, dean of UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said. “His work crosses a variety of disciplines, and he has trained many scientists and shared his expertise with others worldwide. We are delighted that the Agricultural Research Service and the American Chemical Society Division of Agriculture and Food Chemistry are recognizing Don with this award.”

The lectureship was established in 1981 by the agency to honor the memory of Sterling B. Hendricks and to recognize scientists who have made outstanding contributions to the chemical science of agriculture. For Sparks, the honor holds special meaning.

“I was aware of the lectureship and understood it to be very prestigious,” Sparks said. “As I learned more about Hendricks, it grew to mean even more to me. He was a superb researcher who did outstanding work in areas very close to the field in which I am interested. I am delighted to be so honored.”

During a long and distinguished career with the USDA, Hendricks contributed to many diverse scientific disciplines, including soil science, mineralogy, agronomy, plant physiology, geology and chemistry. He is most frequently remembered for discovering phytochrome, the light-activated molecule that regulates many plant processes.

Sparks knew that the scientist had been a student of Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel laureate, and was quite famous for his work in clay mineralogy. Some of his earliest work helped identify clay minerals in soils.

“Hendricks was one of those bright people who can find success in many fields,” Sparks said, noting the chemist was a member of National Academy of Science and was presented the National Medal of Science in 1975.

The lecture is a forum for a presentation on a policy, trend or scientific development. Sparks said he plans to discuss his own research and also the importance of providing increased funding for basic research.

Sparks’ research group has been conducting research on metal and oxyanion reaction mechanisms on mineral surfaces and soils. They employ synchrotron radiation techniques at national laboratories to determine at a molecular scale how contaminants are bound to natural surfaces and in what forms (species) they are present. Such data are critical in making decisions about mobility and bioavailability of contaminants in the environment.

The group also has been working with hyper-accumulator plants, which are able to ingest large quantities of metals from contaminated soils and thereby assist in environmental remediation.

This year, the lecture is cosponsored by the American Chemical Society’s division of agriculture and food chemistry and the agrochemical division. It will be presented Aug. 31 during the ACS annual fall meeting in Washington, D.C.

The lectureship includes a $2,000 honorarium, a medallion and expenses.

Previous lecturers have included Robert Buchanan of the USDA; the late Kriton Hatzios, formerly a professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station; Irvin E. Liener, professor emeritus of the University of Minnesota; Malcolm J. Thompson, a chemist with a number of government agencies including the USDA, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of the Interior; Hugh D. Sisler, professor emeritus of the University of Maryland; and Peter S. Eagleson, professor emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sparks received a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and a master’s degree in soil science from the University of Kentucky and earned a doctorate in soil physical chemistry from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He joined the UD faculty in 1979 and has been chairperson of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences since 1989.

He is the author of three textbooks on soil chemistry, 38 book chapters and 152 refereed papers. He has also edited 40 volumes of Advances in Agronomy, the most prestigious serial review in the fields of soil and crop sciences. Additionally, he has edited 14 other books and monographs.

Sparks has presented his research findings at 65 universities and institutes around the world. He has also served as adviser and mentor to 39 graduate students and 18 postdoctoral researchers.

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Soil Science Society of America and the American Society of Agronomy.

He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the M.L. and Chrystie M. Jackson Soil Science Award, the Soil Science Research Award, the McMaster Fellowship, the Gold Medal Award from the Polish Society of Soil Science and the Environmental Quality Research Award.

Sparks is past president of the Soil Science Society of America, and is currently president of the International Union of Soil Sciences.

He was the 1996 recipient of UD’s prestigious Francis Alison Award, which was established by the UD Board of Trustees to recognize the scholarship, professional achievements and dedication of members of the faculty, and in 2002 was the first recipient of the UD Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Student Advising and Mentoring Award.

Article by Neil Thomas
Photo by Duane Perry

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