James Pushnik: 1997-98 Outstanding Professor


James Pushnik, Biology (photo KM)
Finding ways to help mitigate the buildup of carbon-dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is the research task 1997-98 Outstanding Professor James Pushnik has identified for himself and his students. A molecular biologist who conducts research in the areas of plant biodiversity and the effects of environmental stresses on forest production, Dr. Pushnik joined the faculty of Chico State in 1988. Since that time, he has developed equally outstanding records as both a researcher and a teacher.

Pushnik sees teaching as inseparable from his research. "I don't know of any way to separate the two in science. There is a demand that we keep current and that we demonstrate a competence in the research process." In a statement of philosophy on integrating research and teaching, Pushnik states, "It has become imperative that both student and teacher re-learn the learning process and integrate this newly acquired knowledge into our shared experience.This continuous scholarship transcends the laboratories, discussion groups, and classrooms into the very fiber of our academic experience."

Pushnik's research publications in refereed journals, his grants as a principle investigator and co-investigator that total over a million dollars, and his numerous papers for national and international meetings attest to his professional achievement. In May 1997, he delivered the plenary address "Biochemical and genetic adaptation of forest species to the changing global climate" at the 27th International Air Pollution Working Group Conference. In May 1997, at the International Conference of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, his graduate student David Garcia and he presented "Differential gene displays of Ponderosa pine experiencing elevated atmospheric CO2 stress" in August, 1997. He also is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of the International Society for Fluoride Research and a grant reviewer for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for global Environmental Change.

No less impressive is his innovative and dedicated work with students, not only in the classroom, but in the research lab as well. Pushnik perceives his primary role as a teacher as engaging undergraduate and graduate students in real-world work and issues. "Science is an area of human endeavor," says Pushnik, "where one becomes proficient through participating in the process. The stimulation of inquiry and wonder of discovery that students receive from real experiments is invaluable. My goal is to challenge students to extend knowledge."

His students assisted him in the construction of the laboratory equipment where future environments for ponderosa pine seedlings can be simulated by computer-controlled adjustments for water, temperature, light, and CO2 levels. The cost of the specially designed lab equipment would have been prohibitive if Pushnik, his colleagues, and students had not constructed it themselves.

Pushnik addresses world issues during classroom lectures to stimulate exchanges with his students concerning things they read and hear about. He invites them to join in significant research efforts which contribute to the expanding body of environmental knowledge. He encourages their improvement of professional writing skills, and their exposure to the scientific community by taking at least one student researcher with him when he travels to conferences.

Pushnik began his current research on the adaptation of ponderosa pines to future atmospheres while acting as a participating scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. During this time, he and fellow researchers screened 5000 individual seedlings to evaluate the growth performance of breeding populations of ponderosa pines. They collected their samples in six different zones, north to south, and three different elevations in California. Using plastic domes with controlled atmospheres, cloned seedlings were propagated and grown for three years under atmospheres containing the CO2 concentrations projected for fifty and 100 years in the future.

One of the initial results of the work was that the seedlings responded differently to the same increase in CO2 levels: (l) some exhibited no difference in growth; (2) some responded better; (3) and some responded worse. Those that responded best were from various zones that grew at lower elevations. Pushnik was most interested in the two extremes, those that responded well and those that had a negative response to increased CO2. These results prompted the construction of the CSU, Chico controlled environment facility and allowed him to advance the next scientific question, "What was the underlying difference in their biochemistry that correlated with these growth responses?" Pushnik's research students have been able to identify a couple of enzymes that contribute to a greater photosynthetic rate and resultant positive growth and wood production. The question currently under investigation in the CSU, Chico laboratory involves determining whether the response is occurring through biochemical adaptations or whether there is a heritable adaptation at the genetic level.

One practical application of the research is trees can be selected or genetically modified to enhance their ability to lock up higher levels of CO2. Since Ponderosa pines are long-lived, the excess CO2 can be locked up for 100-150 years or more in the standing biomass, then harvested and used in construction, mitigating its long-term effect on the environment.

KM


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