Young UI, ISU researchers receive presidential honors

Award is the highest honor the U.S. government can bestow on scientists and engineers early in their careers

Among 102 researchers honored Monday as recipients of the “presidential early career award for scientists and engineers” are two Iowa-based professors.

Randall McEntaffer, a University of Iowa assistant professor in physics and astronomy who conducts research for NASA, and Steven Cannon, an Iowa State University-based research geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, represent Iowa among the honorees.

The award is the highest honor the U.S. government can bestow on scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers, according to the White House. President Barack Obama on Monday named the 102 recipients, who will receive the awards next year in a ceremony in Washington D.C.

In a news release, Obama called the winners’ achievements “impressive” and “promising indicators of even greater success ahead.”

Cannon told The Gazette that he feels honored but also “a little uncomfortable” to be recognized for work that he is doing in collaboration with researchers around the world.

His work focuses on improving crop domestication, specifically dealing with legumes like the soybean, common bean, chickpea, fava bean and others. Over the last seven years, Cannon said, he has been working with scientists locally and internationally to sequence the genomes of species of legumes and make those genomes available to other researchers online.

The soybean genome has been available for six years, but the common bean and chickpea genomes are new this year, Cannon said. The USDA makes the genome information available on two websites: and

The goal, according to Cannon, is to make more productive crops – as all of them are facing pressure from plant diseases and climate change, including drought and flooding.

“Sequencing the genomes of these species really is one of the first big steps in understanding how some varieties are able to fend off pathogens and stresses and others are not,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s about making more productive crops.”

Cannon said he also has been researching basic features of plant biology, including the evolution of nitrogen fixation.

“Essentially, (some plant varieties) are able to produce their own fertilizer,” he said. “We would like to make them the most efficient producers of their own fertilizer as possible.”

Cannon said he has been conducting research with the USDA while at ISU for seven years.

McEntaffer, who earned his undergraduate degree from the UI and his doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Colorado in 2007, lists four current research projects on his website. One includes work on a five-year suborbital rocket project to create technologies for future NASA x-ray missions.

He told The Gazette that the technology he’s working on today could make future NASA missions more affordable and successful toward the goal of observing astronomical objects. The UI research also is training future NASA scientists, McEntaffer said.

From graduate and post-doctoral students to engineers and undergraduates, he said, “This trains at every level.”

“And that is very important to us here,” he said.

McEntaffer, who has been with the UI for six years, said he was aware of the presidential award but was surprised to be named among the recipients Monday.

“Getting it before the holidays was fortuitous,” he said.

Recipients of the presidential awards are either employed or funded by the departments of agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health and human services, the interior, and veterans affairs, and the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution or the Intelligence Community.

Those agencies annually nominate “the most meritorious scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering.”

President Bill Clinton established the awards in 1996 to honor innovative research and recipients’ commitment to community service through “scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.”


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