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2024 Anton Lang Memorial Award winners announced

By Kara Headley
Four individuals, three of who are holding awards, in front of a whiteboard with diagrams and text
Anton Lang awardees Joshua Kaste, Xinyu Fu and Robert Last with Christoph Benning, director of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory.
By Kara Headley

Graduate student Joshua Kaste and postdoctoral researcher Xinyu Fu have been awarded the 2024 Anton Lang Memorial Awards at a ceremony which took place on Monday, April 15, 2024. This year’s lecture was given by Robert Last from Michigan State University, or MSU.

The Anton Lang Memorial Fund was established in honor of the founding director of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, or 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 pleasure leading the annual award ceremony to honor the memory of the first PRL director, Anton Lang,” said Christoph Benning, director of the PRL. “I would like to congratulate the 2024 awardees, graduate student Joshua Kaste and postdoc Xinyu Fu for their outstanding accomplishments and wish both all the best for their future careers. I also congratulate Robert Last for his recognition as the 2024 Anton Lang Lecturer. He gave an inspiring presentation on the evolution of form and function in plants through specialized metabolism focusing on acyl sugars in the nightshade family. He along with his past and present lab mentees are being recognized for their discoveries of the enzymes involved in acyl sugar assembly and their evolution in different plants.”

Two individuals shaking hands while one is receiving an award, standing in front of a projector screen with a blurred presentation
Christoph Benning presents the Anton Lang award to the 2024 graduate student recipient, Joshua Kaste.
By Kara Headley

Joshua Kaste

Joshua Kaste is the 2024 recipient of the Anton Lang Graduate Student Award. At the time of receiving the award, he was a fifth year Ph.D. student in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, doing research in Yair Shachar-Hill's lab. Now, he is a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Megan Matthews lab at the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Kaste’s dissertation research centers on computational modeling of the fluxes through plant central metabolism. It includes computational modeling of microbial metabolism and plant gene expression. He has also developed online tools to help teach metabolic modeling and used them to teach a workshop alongside Shachar-Hill for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

“[Joshua] has a very bright future in whatever combination of scientific research, leadership, and education he chooses and will continue to make us proud,” Shachar-Hill wrote in his letter recommending Kaste for this award.

As of now, Kaste has published six peer-reviewed articles as first or co-first author. Additionally, Kaste has been awarded fellowships from the NSF-IMPACTS program in Computational Plant Biology and the NIH funded Plant Biology for Health and Sustainability program. Through the IMPACTS program, Kaste has helped organize workshops and symposia and traveled to research conferences to represent the program. He was also the 2023 recipient of the Tracy A. Hammer Graduate Student Award.

“It's an absolute honor and a privilege to have received the Anton Lang award,” Kaste said. “Getting this award from MSU's amazing plant sciences community is meaningful to me as a sign that the sometimes very nerdy computational and statistical challenges I've tackled during my degree are being recognized as valuable contributions to our understanding of plants and their metabolism.”

Two individuals are standing in front of a projected screen; one is handing over an award to the other.
Christoph Benning presents postdoctoral researcher Xinyu Fu with this year's Anton Lang award.
By Kara Headley

Xinyu Fu

Xinyu Fu is a postdoctoral researcher in Berkley Walker’s lab at the PRL and the 2024 Anton Lang Research Associate Award recipient. She received her Ph.D. in Plant Biology with a minor in Statistics at Iowa State University.

She was brought into the Walker lab group for her expertise in metabolomics, a research tool she learned during her Ph.D. studies. Using this, she was able to answer fundamental questions about plant central metabolism through her research in the Walker lab.

“Without Xinyu, we could not have brought these foundational approaches into my lab, and I am indebted to her perseverance and insight in working through many of the initial challenges in resolving metabolic flux,” Walker wrote, in his letter nominating Fu for the Anton Lang award.

Since joining the PRL, Fu has published three research publications as first author, and an additional seven as a co-author, with more on the way. She was a recipient of the Cloud Computing Fellowship from the MSU High Performance Computing Cluster.

“Receiving this award affirms the invaluable mentorship and support I've received,” Fu said. “I am particularly thankful to my advisor Berkley Walker for believing in me and providing the guidance and resources that enable me to innovate in scientific research. I also extend my deepest appreciation to my collaborators and all those who have inspired and helped me throughout this journey.”

A presenter is standing to the right of a wooden podium in a classroom setting. The audience members are seated in rows of green chairs, listening attentively
Robert Last presents the 2024 Anton Lang Memorial Seminar, “Secondary or Specialized? Natural variation informs our understanding of plant metabolism.”
By Kara Headley

Robert Last

The 2024 Anton Lang Memorial Lecturer was Robert Last. He is a University Distinguished Professor and Barnett Rosenberg Chair in the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Plant Biology at MSU. His talk was titled “Secondary or Specialized? Natural variation informs our understanding of plant metabolism.”

The presentation touched on the Last lab’s work with acylsugars, which are deterants to herbivores who might eat the plant. These building blocks are simple, yet structurally diverse. The researchers look primarily at plants in the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. These plants enable studies of multiple metabolic pathways and networks.

“Being offered the opportunity to present the Anton Lang Lecture is tremendously rewarding in many ways,” Last said. “First and foremost, it is a tribute to an amazing cohort of past and current lab group members and collaborators. The collaborative intellectual environment at MSU, which traces back to the leadership and work of Dr. Lang and other early community members, continues to play a central role in our work and our success.”

In addition to his lab work, Last has a long record of training the next generation of plant scientists. This includes ten years of service as Program Director of the Plants for Health and Sustainability T32 NIH Graduate Training Program, establishment of the Plant Genomics at MSU REU program in 2006, and two multi-year stints as a course coordinator/instructor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory summer plant biology courses.

He is a past President of the American Society of Plant Biologists, and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society of Plant Biologists. He has served as a Program Officer at the US National Science Foundation, a Science Director at Cereon Genomics in Cambridge MA, and from 1989 to 1998 he rose through the ranks at the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell University. He trained as an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT, a PhD student at Carnegie-Mellon and an undergraduate at Ohio Wesleyan University.