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A track record of scholarly excellence: Widhalm named 2023 University Faculty Scholar

“If you ask my mother, I declared in third grade that I was going to be a professor one day,” says Joshua Widhalm. His passion for academia has only grown exponentially since then.

The associate professor of horticulture and member of the Center for Plant Biology  is one of four faculty members from the College of Agriculture who received the distinction of University Faculty Scholar this year. The award recognizes faculty who are on an accelerated path for academic distinction in the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. A total of 120 faculty across campus received the award.

Nominated by Linda Prokopy, department head of horticulture and landscape architecture, Widhalm was surprised that he was chosen. But his surprise is joined by gratitude. “This honor means that I feel valued and seen by the university for the contributions I’m making. It makes me feel like they care and are invested in my long-term success.”  

Prokopy says, “Josh is an outstanding faculty member and leader who has clearly established a high quality, peer-recognized, scholarly program deserving of recognition. He is also a dedicated colleague who frequently volunteers for service positions and is committed to diversity and inclusion. This recognition demonstrates that it is possible to be both an exceptional scholar and a team player.”

Widhalm’s love for research has taken him far on the scientific journey he started as a boy. He earned his Ph.D. in agronomy while studying at the Center for Plant Science Innovation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, specializing in the study of plant metabolic biochemistry. Before his current position, he was a Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Fellow of the Life Sciences Research Foundation and a postdoc in biochemistry at Purdue.

Engaged in the areas of plant natural product metabolism, synthetic biology and functional genomics, Widhalm has become particularly taken with Elysia clarki sea slugs in recent years. His research focuses on how these mollusks steal the photosynthetic parts of their algal meals, extracting chloroplasts through a process cleverly known as “kleptoplasty.” The slugs then use the stolen chloroplast for photosynthesis–, similar to how the sun feeds plants.

“Plant metabolism is very interesting. Sea slugs are compelling because of the evolution of their unique metabolism. Plants evolved chemical strategies to interact with environments, as opposed to animals,” Widhalm says.

In the future, Widhalm and his collaborators, Jennifer Wisecaver and Mark Hall, associate professors of biochemistry, plan to utilize this evolutionary process for various industrial applications, like drug development and sustainable product engineering. “I think it’s important to look to nature for inspiration to develop practical solutions for humans,” says Widhalm.

He and his team of collaborators have had several breakthroughs towards this goal. Among them, they sequenced the genome of the Elysia clarki sea slug, developed studies to look at changes in the slug’s gene expression over the course of its lifetime from egg to adult and identified vital genes that could be an important set of keys to unlocking the scientists’ main research objective.

Gaining the University Faculty Scholar distinction will benefit the team’s progress on this project. Widhalm and his collaborators are also waiting to hear back news about a large NSF grant they applied for in pursuit of understanding the sea slugs and their valuable talents.

Widhalm’s passion for science will continue driving him to search for answers to nature’s deepest queries, including the slugs. He adds, “I’m fascinated by how many questions there are to answer. There’s so much that is unknown.”

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