David Emerich and Thomas Spencer are the latest University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources professors to be named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Emerich, a professor and associate chair of biochemistry, and Spencer, a professor in animal sciences and director of the Interdisciplinary Reproduction and Health Group (IRHG) at CAFNR, were two of five MU faculty members to earn the distinction in 2017. The two become the 22nd and 23rd fellows in CAFNR.
Emerich and Spencer will receive their official certificate and rosette pin on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, during the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas.
A Humbling Honor
When Emerich was a sophomore in high school in rural Wisconsin, his biology teacher bought 12 brand-new science books for a dozen lucky students.
“Back then, biology class was dissecting frogs – and we had to bring our own frogs,” Emerich said. “But this teacher was ambitious and believed in us. I never had received a new book before, and most of my books were pre-World War II. I was fortunate enough to get one of those biology textbooks and it was an eye-opener.”
Emerich’s biochemistry interest was kicked off soon thereafter, as he was asked to do his own experiment by his biology teacher during his senior year.
“My teacher walked into class one day and gave me a scientific paper written by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey,” Emerich said. “They took a bell jar and filled it up with ammonia, hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. They sealed it and put an electric spark it in, trying to mimic the pre-biotic atmosphere on earth. They created amino acids, which are components of proteins.”“It’s hard to describe, being named an AAAS Fellow. It was unexpected – a total surprise. It took a while to sink it that it happened. It was very humbling. And it’s still a total surprise.”
Emerich’s teacher wanted him to do the same experiment. Emerich finished the project and took it to the state science fair. He was hooked.
“I was out of my league at the science fair, but it was then that I knew I wanted to be a biochemist,” Emerich said.
Emerich earned his bachelor’s and Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin. During his junior year, he started working with a professor who was doing nitrogen fixation. That became the focus of Emerich’s career.
“As a junior in college, I basically started my career,” he said.
Emerich joined MU in 1980 as an assistant professor in biochemistry. He soon moved to an associate professor and has served as a professor for nearly 30 years. Emerich has earned numerous teaching and advisor awards throughout his career, including a William T. Kemper Fellowship for Excellence in Teaching in 2000.
Emerich has been the associate chair for the MU Department of Biochemistry for the past 10 years.
“If you hang around long enough, they make you do other things, like be the associate chair,” Emerich joked.
Emerich earned his AAAS Fellows honor for his contributions to the field of nitrogen fixation and teaching of plant biochemistry. Emerich’s research is focused on increasing plant productivity, as plants can’t fix their own nitrogen.
“Nitrogen has been one of the most limiting nutrients for plant growth, as well as humans and animals,” Emerich said. “That’s been a limitation for years – there’s just not enough nitrogen. Very few organisms can fix nitrogen, and those that can are bacteria.”
Rotating crops helped with nitrogen fixation, but as technology increased, the need to rotate crops was replaced with ammonia fertilizer. Farmers could spread the fertilizer on their fields to help the plants add nitrogen. Understanding the nitrogen fixation process is still incredibly important as the world’s population continues to grow and needs to be fed. Emerich is looking at ways to get plants to fix their own nitrogen.
“It’s hard to describe, being named an AAAS Fellow,” Emerich said. “It was unexpected – a total surprise. It took a while to sink it that it happened. It was very humbling. And it’s still a total surprise.”
Emerich is also part of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group at Mizzou, a group of faculty, students, postdoctoral fellows and professionals who are working toward bettering the field of plant biology. The group was established a year after Emerich began at MU.
“We all feed off of each other,” Emerich said. “As a young guy, when the group first began, it was perfect for me. It was fun and has continued to be fun. We bounce ideas off of each other constantly. It’s a powerful and productive group.
“MU, overall, is a wonderful place to be. When I need something, all I have to do it make a call or send an email and I’ll have people lining up to help. It’s so welcoming and I work with so many people who have such great attitudes.”
An Exciting Recognition
Spencer was named an AAAS Fellow for his contributions to agriculture, as well as the biological and medical sciences. Spencer’s work focuses on using animal models to understand development and function of the uterus and placenta.
“It was really exciting to be named a Fellow,” Spencer said. “There are a lot of really great scientists who have received that honor, and it was nice to be mentioned with all of them.”
Spencer joined MU nearly three years ago as a signature hire.
“This department is very committed to research, and it has a large number of people engaged in reproduction and genomics,” Spencer said. “That’s what really attracted me to this position. There are so many opportunities for collaborations. It’s an excellent department – one that has been a leader in reproduction for the past two to three decades.”
Spencer’s foray into agriculture began when he joined the National FFA Organization in high school. A self-described “city kid,” Spencer grew up in Auburn, Alabama. While he didn’t grow up on a farm, Spencer showed cattle and pigs in junior high and high school. He served as a local and state officer during his time in FFA.“It was really exciting to be named a Fellow. There are a lot of really great scientists who have received that honor, and it was nice to be mentioned with all of them.”
“I got involved in FFA because I really wasn’t good at sports,” Spencer said. “I had a really wonderful agriculture teacher, Mahlon Richburg, who lived down the street from me. He was a great mentor and helped a lot with my FFA projects.
“Everything just kind of evolved from there. I eventually had a small stocker cattle operation that I made enough money on to pay my college expenses. While in college, I even lived on a pig farm. My interest in agriculture just continued to grow.”
Spencer earned his bachelor’s and master’s from Auburn University, both in animal science. He then attended Texas A&M University and earned a Ph.D. in reproductive biology. Spencer completed his postdoctoral research at the Baylor College of Medicine in molecular and cell biology.
Spencer spent nearly 15 years at Texas A&M University in various capacities, including as a professor of reproductive biology and physiological genomics and Texas AgriLife Research Faculty Fellow. Spencer then was the Baxter Endowed Chair in Beef Cattle Research and professor of animal sciences and molecular biosciences at Washington State University before coming to MU.
“It’s been an exciting time to be at Mizzou,” Spencer said. “I think we are moving in a very positive direction in terms of the research and teaching aspects of the campus. We have a really bright future.”
Spencer’s research uses a variety of animal models, including sheep, cattle, pigs and mice, to study the fundamental aspects of development and function of the uterus and placenta. The goal of the research is to understand the fundamental biology and genetic processes that are important for pregnancy establishment and success.
Spencer is collaborating with the MU medical school as well as obstetrician-gynecologists (OB-GYN) at Washington University in St. Louis.
“We’re trying to model the early period of pregnancy, where the embryo interacts with the endometrium of the uterus,” Spencer said. “We think we have some pretty good models to understand this.
“It’s really almost impossible to model early pregnancy in humans because of obvious ethical limitations. This is important to understand and research because the majority of pregnancies are lost within the first month or two.”
This research is important to understanding pregnancy in beef cattle as well as humans. Having an understanding of pregnancy loss can help producers prevent future loss.
“Our work in cattle is predominantly done to learn more about genetic markers of fertility,” Spencer said. “Basically, our goal is for you to take a DNA sample from a calf at birth and make a decision on whether the calf will have a better chance of becoming pregnant as an adult. In cattle, this sample can be used to make a decision on whether you want to use the calf for reproduction or for meat.”