Photo courtesy of Jo McCulty
An Ohio State faculty member will be honored at the White House.
Steven Lower was awarded the 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers three months ago. As one of the 85 recipients of the award, he will be honored in a ceremony at the White House in December. White House officials told recipients they would get to meet and shake hands with President Barack Obama.
“I’ll be excited and nervous I suspect,” Lower said. “I mean, I’ll probably only have enough time it takes to shake (Obama’s) hand, turn and smile for a photograph.”
To receive the award, a scientist or engineer must be nominated by one of the nine federal departments or agencies that participate. The National Science Foundation nominated Lower, who teaches many classes, including introductory science classes for non-majors to graduate level courses in molecular science and molecular biology.
Lower said the foundation contacted him last spring but did not tell him what award he was being considered for.
“All they wanted to know at that time was whether I was a U.S. citizen, which I am, and they also wondered if they could conduct an FBI background check,” he said.
His main research endeavor includes working with bacteria, particularly staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA, and how and why the bacteria sticks to surfaces.
In collaboration with the Duke University Medical Center, Lower and his lab team examine infections on heart valve implants.
“Duke University will essentially take the bacteria from that implant and send them to us at Ohio State,” Lower said. “Then we do work with them in our laboratories to figure out basically whether or not they want to stick or how they stick, what genes they’re using or proteins they’re using that allow them to form an infection.”
Lower compared the bacteria that coat the implant with barnacles that sometimes cover boats and submarines.
In cases where implants have become infected, antibiotics are becoming a less effective treatment, he said. The ultimate goal is to find how to prevent infections or develop a material the bacteria cannot adhere to.
In March 2008, Lower was awarded the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award, which included an almost $500,000 five-year grant. That award also put him in the running to be nominated for the presidential award.
Lower contributes part of his success to workers in his laboratory, which includes a postdoctoral researcher, three graduate students and an undergraduate student.
Alex DiBartola, a third-year in microbiology and chemistry and a part of Lower’s lab team, said he was not surprised that Lower won the award.
“My first immediate thought was, ‘I’m actually working in this guy’s lab, this is a big deal,'” DiBartola said. “Dr. Lower, he is doing some really important work with staph (infections) that can change the lives of people in medicine.”
Nadia Casillas, a postdoctoral researcher who also works in Lower’s lab, said Lower has been a mentor for her and treats her more like faculty than a student.
“He gives me the confidence to push myself a little further in the professional area,” Casillas said.
Although Lower is dedicated to his research, he likes to balance it with teaching.
“There are times you’re doing research and it’s going great, but then it’s not and you wish you were teaching,” Lower said. “And then you’re teaching and maybe you’ve just given an exam to 180 students and it’s an essay exam, which I do sometimes, and then you have to grade it and you were wishing you were back in the lab doing research.”
Barry Lyons, director of the School of Earth Sciences, said the award is an honor for Lower and the Earth Sciences Department where he works.
“When someone is recognized at that level, it’s a great thing for the honoree but it’s also good for the unit and the university as a whole,” Lyons said.
Lower said the award motivates him and he hopes it will help him receive grants to support his research.