Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mycetoma, a mysterious illness largely unknown in developed nations, has wreaked havoc on the health of farmers, herdsmen, children and others in close contact with the land in tropical and subtropical regions of our planet.

It’s thought the disease is contracted by coming into contact with a microorganism that lives in the soil or on a thorn from an Acacia tree.

“Two forms of mycetoma are recognized — actinomycetoma caused by a group of filamentous bacteria, and eumycetoma caused by any of 30–50 species of hyaline and pigmented fungi,” said Abdallah Samy, a Fulbright scholar and doctoral student at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute.

Recently, for his research comparing known cases of mycetoma with Acacia tree distribution in the Sudan, using a technique dubbed “ecological niche modelling,” Samy won the Young Investigator Award at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and he met billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates in the process.

Gates“A few days before the meeting, I received an email informing me I was a Young Investigator Award candidate,” Samy said. “I presented my information on mycetoma in a poster session, and then they asked for an oral presentation — and I was named the winner for the 2014 Young Investigator Award. Bill Gates was the keynote speaker of the ASTMH meeting, where he gave a talk about dealing with future epidemics like Ebola. He’s contributed a lot to the challenge of combating neglected tropical diseases around the world through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Before we knew who won the competition, I asked to take a picture with him, and he accepted.”

Samy, who is from Cairo, plans a career studying disease ecology and researching new skills to understand disease transmission and control. Working with mentor A. Townsend Peterson, University Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Samy hopes his scholarly work will improve human health around the world.

Peterson said the Young Investigator Award was a reflection of the hard work and detailed insights of his protégé.

“I was extremely pleased to hear of this recognition of Abdallah’s work and abilities, and I would say that this honor was very well-deserved,” he said. “Abdallah is an extremely promising young academic from Ain Shams University in Egypt, where he expects to return after finishing his doctoral studies at KU. He is one of a small but very effective and efficient research group working in disease ecology and biogeography at KU, and it is more than a privilege to be working with him.”

Indeed, Samy’s work on mycetoma could eventually help health workers to suppress the disease, which is not well-understood but can have devastating effects on people.

Dr. Ahmed Fahal, who treats Sudanese patients with mycetoma in his role as director of the Mycetoma Research Centre at Soba University Hospital in Khartoum, worked personally with Samy during his investigation there. Fahal underscored the seriousness of the disease to those who suffer its effects.

“It’s still challenging and hard to treat patients with mycetoma, for which the available antifungal therapy is still not optimal,” said Fahal. “In order to treat this infection, both extensive and destructive surgery and prolonged antifungal treatment are necessary. The treatment outcome is disappointing, characterized by low cure rate and frequent amputation, high patient followup dropout and high recurrence rates.”‎

Samy said he hopes his experience modeling occurrences of mycetoma in Sudan will inform his future research on other diseases through the world. Currently, with his mentor Peterson and colleagues from Sudan, Mexico and the Netherlands, he’s developing extensions of the Sudan work across Latin America and Asia. 

“Public health problems are my field of interest,” said the KU doctoral student. “I’m always intending to help people. Such work has the potential to change lives.”

-Brendan Lynch, KU News 

Photos, from top: Acacia tree (WikiCommons); Abdallah Samy with Bill Gates.

News Type:
Research News
Saturday, July 26, 2014

A captivating opera singer, a groundbreaking geoarchaeologist and a renowned ecologist have been awarded the University of Kansas’ most prestigious faculty honor.

Faculty members Joyce Castle in the School of Music, Rolfe Mandel in anthropology and geoscience, and Jorge Soberón in ecology and evolutionary biology have been appointed University Distinguished Professors, an esteemed title bestowed on only about 60 individuals at the entire university.

"The title of University Distinguished Professor is a truly special honor, reserved for only a select few of our finest faculty,” Vitter said. “Professors Castle, Mandel and Soberón are three of our most esteemed faculty, and their receiving this title is a reflection of their many accomplishments and contributions to KU, ranging from excellence in the classroom to ground-breaking research.”

Jorge Soberon

Vitter noted the broad variance in academic disciplines was a testament to KU’s stature as a comprehensive research institution. While the three distinguished faculty members don’t share much in common in research, they have a common bond in their commitment to excellence for their students and for KU.

Danny Anderson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, noted Soberón’s record extended beyond his nine years at KU. “His record is clearly one of a distinguished scholar, mentor and teacher but seems to go well beyond his own research discipline, having a global benefit. At KU, he brings the experience of someone who has been among the most influential in developing his field and someone who has had a major influence on public policy.”

Soberón joined KU in 2005 and has carried with him advice he received from the provost at that time, David Shulenburger. “One phrase I have not forgotten is, ‘We expect you to help us to form good citizens,’” Soberón said. “These words have been in my mind since then, and I have reflected a lot about their meaning. They mean that you are expected to do much more than just teach good classes, and I have tried my best. I am thankful to this marvelous university for giving me the opportunity to help my colleagues and authorities in this most-important task.”

Through 2012, new University Distinguished Professors were appointed only when a position became vacant. KU has since opted to accept nominations for University Distinguished professorships on a biannual basis. The University Committee on Distinguished Professorships reviews nominations and forwards its selections to the provost for final approval. Major criteria for selection include record of scholarship, participation in university affairs and professional organizations, service to community and the success of their students, colleagues and institutions.

The first Distinguished Professors were established at KU in 1958. That year, four were awarded. In 1963, the first University Distinguished Professors were announced. A complete list is available online.

Soberón is a research scientist at the Biodiversity Institute and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. A world-renowned scholar in interdisciplinary biodiversity science and ecology, he is acclaimed for his creativity, novelty and synthesis across theoretical and empirical studies. His nomination packet for appointment as a University Distinguished Professor includes letters of support from a Nobel Prize winner, a former director of the National Science Foundation, members of the National Academy of Sciences and other luminaries in international science and policy.

Beginning with his appointment as executive secretary of Mexico’s national biodiversity commission in 1992, Soberón’s scope of research has encompassed global biodiversity and ecology and how the knowledge gained from this research could best inform local, national and international science and social policy. His specific research themes include theoretical and computational modeling of species’ richness across landscapes, as well as the past, present and future geographic distributions of species under scenarios of environmental change as well as the processes underlying those biodiversity patterns. His body of work has established him as a worldwide authority in these arenas, and his ideas and prototypes are now the gold standard in modeling and forecasting the richness and spatial distribution of plants and animals across habitats.

Soberón is co-author on the first synthetic book on ecological niche modeling, and his work on biodiversity patterns is revising the metrics used by the global community. His research has been funded by major grants from the NIH, NSF and Microsoft Research, and his papers have been published in the highest-ranking journals in his field.

Soberón’s work merges KU’s four strategic initiative themes. His research on environmental patterns and processes develops and utilizes the most advanced analytics and computational modeling tools for forecasting biotic phenomena, including the potential spread of invasive species, disease vectors and emerging diseases under different scenarios of climate change, and the social consequences to populations and habitats in different geographic regions. As such, his work is creating at KU the interdisciplinary research synergies that society needs to tackle the grand environmental challenges of the 21st century.

For example, during the past 15 years, he has grappled with the question how genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly crops, will affect native organisms in surrounding ecosystems. His research has similarly helped foster international policy regarding invasive species, cultural heritage, local economies and indigenous rights. More recently, he has also addressed Kansas-specific issues, such as prairie conservation, science education in the state and international educational opportunities at KU. Full news release on all 2014 Distinguished Professors available here:

From his academic beginnings as a young professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), Soberón has been a superb teacher and mentor of students. At UNAM, he successfully mentored three doctoral students, three master's students and eight senior undergraduate thesis students. Some of his former students are now in academic posts; others serve as director of conservation of the Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability at the U.S. National Zoological Park and as regional director of Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas. Because of his record, Soberón was asked to serve as coordinator of graduate studies for UNAM’s science faculty.

In his second academic career at KU, Soberón is an accomplished teacher at undergraduate and graduate levels, team-teaching courses in ecology, conservation and wildlife biology, methods in quantitative biogeography, biogeography and topics in environmental studies for the IGERT program. He also developed his own courses in quantitative ecology for graduate students and international environmental policy for both undergraduate and graduate students. In one of his major teaching innovations, he leads an annual, year-round, interdepartmental graduate student/faculty working group in spatial ecology, which, to date, has resulted in six major papers published with students. Such teaching investments are well beyond what is expected given his appointments and speak well of his commitment to both the education and research training of the next generation of scientists.

While at KU, Soberón has led a paradigm shift among international biodiversity researchers to adopt open data-sharing, making species taxonomic data, occurrence data and environmental data freely accessible to the broader scientific and educational communities. In this vein, he was elected unanimously in October 2013 by more than 30 member countries as first vice-chair of the Executive Committee of the Governing Board of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development intergovernmental platform.

As two of his nominators conclude in their nomination letter: “Professor Soberón is the quintessential distinguished professor, meeting and exceeding its expectations in character and career. He is a world-renowned researcher; he has international stature as a statesman for science, policy and environmental issues; since coming to KU, his achievements in teaching, training graduate students and course offerings have well exceeded what his position requires, and he has provided wise counsel and insightful guidance to both the Biodiversity Institute and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“Indeed, when the history of this science is written, KU and Professor Soberón will be credited with helping to develop and demonstrate ecological niche modeling as a powerful tool for predicting and testing environmental phenomena – a tool now adopted by biodiversity scientists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists and natural resource managers worldwide.”

News Type:
Award Grant News
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Delegates are invited to register for the 21st meeting of the GBIF Governing Board (GB21), taking place at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi from 16-18 September 2014.

Official delegates and invited observers may register for the Governing Board meeting and associated events.

A symposium entitled Innovation and Impact through GBIF will be held on 17 September, and is open to the public and media, following free registration. Speakers at the symposium will present GBIF achievements in the last year, projects, policy-relevant applications and innovative uses of data accessed through GBIF. All presentations will also be available online for those unable to attend the symposium in person. Details will be given closer to the time.

Further information on the venue, programme and logistics are available here.  

News Type:
Research News
Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Andrès Lira Noriega, who has been mentored by Jorge Soberón and A. Townsend Peterson, defended and graduated with honors this week. His dissertation title was “Scale and Ecological and Historical Determinants of a Species’ Geographic range: The Case of the Vector-borne Plant Parasite Phoradendron californicum Nutt. (Viscaceae).” He is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher with Carlos Martínez del Rio at the University of Wyoming.

News Type:
Student News
Monday, March 12, 2012

Mexican President

Jorge Soberon, was commended by President Felipe Calderon.

p>Felipe Calderon, president of Mexico, commended the biodiversity research and leadership of a University of Kansas scientist and five other international researchers at a formal ceremony in Mexico on March 15.

Jorge Soberon, senior research scientist at the KU Biodiversity Institute and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, spoke on behalf of all the awardees at the ceremony held in the gardens of the president's residence.

From 1992 to 2005, Soberon was the executive secretary of CONABIO, the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity of Mexico. Established in 1992, the commission is dedicated to increasing the knowledge of Mexico's biodiversity as well as its conservation and sustainable use.  At CONABIO, Soberon was in charge of programs to inventory the biodiversity of Mexico,  digitize biodiversity collections and develop bioinformatic tools to analyze it. At KU, he directs the Biodiversity Modeling and Policy research laboratory of the KU Biodiversity Institute.

In addition to Soberon, Calderon acknowledged the services of Arturo Gomez-Pompa, distinguished professor at the University of California at Riverside; Gonzalo Halffter and Jerzy Rzedowsky, both of the Institute of Ecology, in Xalapa, Mexico; Peter Raven, member of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States and Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and Francisco Takaki, of the Mexican National Institute of Geography and Statstic 

Several prominent American and Mexican biologists, researchers and leaders attended the ceremony, among them Paul and Anne Ehrlich of Stanford University; Rita Colwell, former President of the National Academy of Sciences; Thomas Lovejoy of the Heinz Foundation; Russell Smith of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Cristian Samper, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, among several others. The dean of the National University of Mexico, the Director of CONACyT, the Mexican version of National Science Foundation, and many distinguished Mexican scientists also attended.

News Type:
Research News