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2023 Anton Lang Memorial Award winners announced

Anton Lang
Anton Lang

Graduate student Hannah Parks and postdoctoral researcher María Santos Merino have been awarded the 2023 Anton Lang Memorial Awards at a ceremony which took place on Monday, April 24, 2023. This year’s lecture was given by University Distinguished Professor Thomas D. Sharkey from Michigan State University (MSU).

The Anton Lang Memorial Fund was established in honor of the founding director of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory (PRL), who passed away in 1996. Proceeds from the fund go towards annually supporting the Anton Lang Memorial Lecture and recognizing a graduate student and a postdoctoral research associate who exemplify the research excellence, ideas, dedication and vision of Anton Lang.

“It is always a great pleasure to me as PRL director leading the annual award ceremony to honor the memory of the first PRL director, Anton Lang,” said Christoph Benning, current director of the PRL. “I would like to congratulate the 2023 awardees, graduate student Hannah Parks and postdoc María Santos Merino for their outstanding accomplishments and wish both all the best for their future careers. I also congratulate Thomas D. Sharkey for his recognition as the 2023 Anton Lang Lecturer. He gave an inspiring lecture revisiting some of the major milestones in the history of photosynthetic carbon fixation and taking us to the current frontier of scientific discovery in his field.”

Christoph Benning shakes hands with Hannah Parks
Christoph Benning presents the Anton Lang Graduate Student Award to Hannah Parks.
By Kara Headley, MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory 2023

Hannah Parks

Hannah Parks is the 2023 recipient of the Anton Lang Graduate Student Award. She is a fifth year Ph.D. graduate student in Cornelius Barry’s lab. She is in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology (BMB) and the Molecular Plant Sciences (MPS) graduate program.

Parks studies the metabolism in solanaceous (potato) family, which includes tomato plants and Atropa belladonna, Deadly Nightshade.

In his letter recommending Parks for the award, her faculty advisor Cornelius Barry wrote: “[Parks] is demonstrating research excellence, particularly the use of mass-spectrometry, to provide substantial insight into the biosynthesis and evolution of medicinally important alkaloids. In addition, she has consistently contributed to service and leadership throughout her graduate school career that has created opportunities in STEM for others and positively enriched both of her graduate programs.”

In addition to her work in the lab, Parks is an active participant in leadership, outreach and mentoring in both the BMB and MPS departments. In 2019, she was awarded a Plant Biotechnology for Health and Sustainability Predoctoral Fellowship that supported two years of her graduate training.

“I am truly honored to receive this award," Parks said of the Anton Lang award. "I have enjoyed being a graduate student in the plant sciences at MSU because there is a rich history of great plant science research and a collaborative and collegial environment. I am grateful for the support of my mentor, and the nomination for this award. He has been very patient, attentive and generous throughout my Ph.D.”

Christoph Benning shakes hands with María Santos Merino
Christoph Benning presents María Santos Merino with the Anton Lang Research Associate Award.
By Kara Headley, MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory 2023

María Santos Merino

María Santos Merino is a postdoctoral researcher in Danny Ducat’s lab and the recipient of the 2023 Anton Lang Research Associate Award. She received her Ph.D. at the Institute of Biotechnology and Biomedicine of Cantabria in Spain.

During her time at MSU, she has worked on multiple research projects, across multiple disciplines and labs. In one example, Santos Merino worked with David Kramer and Geoff Davis to learn fluorimetry techniques for monitoring photosynthetic performance in real time.

Ducat wrote of her in his nomination letter: “Dr. Santos-Merino’s fearlessness in the face of new experimental techniques and capacity to rapidly learn new research domains has made her an ideal contributor to the multidisciplinary community at the Plant Research Laboratory.”

In 2022, she was awarded the Clarence Suelter Endowed Postdoctoral Fellowship, which will allow her to visit University of Turku this fall, where she will learn membrane inlet mass spectrometry techniques. Santos Merino also received the 2022 Postdoctoral Excellence in Research Award from the MSU Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.

“[The Anton Lang] award not only validates my achievements since I joined the PRL almost five years ago, but also gives recognition to the rest of the ‘iceberg,’” Santos Merino said. “Spending countless hours learning, failing, succeeding and enjoying my passion, all while feeling accepted as a valuable addition to the PRL and scientific community.”

Tom Sharkey presents the Anton Lang lecture
Thomas D. Sharkey presents the Anton Lang Lecture. 
By Kara Headley, MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory 2023

Thomas D. Sharkey

The 2023 Anton Lang Memorial Lecturer was Thomas D. Sharkey from the PRL. His talk, titled “Using gas exchange measurements to study photosynthesis regulation,” walked through the history of his and other’s research in how plants take in carbon dioxide. He started with his time in Klaus Raschke’s lab at the PRL in the 70s, building his own equipment to measure CO2 intake by leaves. Sharkey was a student at the PRL while Anton Lang was the director.

“Being chosen for the Anton Lang Award is among the most meaningful accolades I could receive,” Sharkey said. “Anton Lang was an outstanding plant scientist and also an outstanding director. His example, and the stature of the Anton Lang Awardees of the past, make this a truly significant honor.”

Sharkey joined MSU as a professor in 2008, where his research focuses on the exchange of gases between plants and the atmosphere, as well as carbon metabolism of photosynthesis. Some of his notable achievements include the measurement of the carbon dioxide concentration inside leaves, an exhaustive study of short-term feedback effects in carbon metabolism and a significant contribution to elucidation of the pathway by which leaf starch breaks down at night.

Christoph Benning, María Santos Merino, Hannah Parks and Tom Sharkey
Christoph Benning, María Santos Merino, Hannah Parks and Tom Sharkey.
By Kara Headley, MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory 2023

In the isoprene research field, his laboratory has cloned many of the genes that underlie isoprene synthesis, and he has published many important papers on the biochemical regulation of isoprene synthesis.

“It is an interesting twist of fate that I should end my career in a laboratory across the hall from where I started my journey in photosynthesis research in 1974,” Sharkey remarked. “In the 43 years since being awarded the Ph.D. in 1980, I have traveled around the world to collaborate with many outstanding scientists. I became Emeritus Professor of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and might have ended my career there were it not for the lure of returning to the incredible strength of plant sciences at MSU in general and the PRL in particular. A career as a research scientist has its ups and downs, but I cannot imagine anything else I could have done that would leave me with such a feeling of satisfaction for what I have accomplished. My start and finish in the PRL were critical to my success.”