by Amy E., Published April 19, 2010
Research science is not a speedy discipline. It's a marathon of repetition, and things don't always work the way they're supposed to. When they don't, Eastern Michigan assistant professor Aaron Liepman tells his students," That's what the 're' in 'research' is for."
Re-search = search again.
"I've been doing research for a fair amount of time and the reality is, when you do experiments, very rarely does it work out the first time the way you expect," said Liepman, recipient of this year's Ronald W. Collins Distinguished Faculty Award for Research I (0-4 years). "You sort of make incremental progress. You have to find your way to the answer."
Liepman and the other Distinguished Faculty Award winners were recognized at a March 24 reception in their honor in the Student Center ballroom. The award includes a plaque and a $3,500 stipend.
Though research takes time, Liepman has wasted none making an impact at EMU.
He was hired in 2006 and, the next year, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Rhode Island and Michigan Technological University, landed a $399,000 United States Department of Agriculture grant to study cellulose synthase-like (CSL)????. The findings could one day help scientists engineer plants precisely suited to different purposes.
"Since so much material taught in classrooms is information that is already known, conducting research also opened my eyes to the vast realm of the unknown," he said. "I find it thrilling to discover something new and, through publication, integrate that knowledge into the fabric of the known."
His work has been equally well received in some of the top journals in his field, and he's been published twice in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the premier journals for all fields of science. Liepman's research is particularly timely because it could contribute to more efficient production of biofuel crops, though that's just one of many, many ways plant cell walls intersect with our daily lives.
"His work is top notch," said EMU Biology Department Head Marianne Laporte, who's known Liepman since his graduate days at the University of Michigan. "He came out of U-M and (Michigan State University), out of the Plant Research Lab, which is one of the top places to study plants in the world. Aaron has a real talent for working on difficult problems. One of the reasons there's still so much to know about cell wall biochemistry is the molecules involved are difficult to study, and he's come up with some novel ways to study them."
To find his way to the answers, Liepman has built collaborative partnerships around the world with the top researchers in his field. The whole being greater than the sum of its parts, what better way to do science than with the best possible parts?
"To me it's essential to work on a team" Liepman said. "You have all of these other minds coming from different perspective. Working with others challenges me to think of things from different angles."
Liepman worked in labs at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, but he chose to teach at EMU partly because of the value he places on teaching. Laporte said the department could have easily nominated him for the Collins Award for teaching. Eastern Michigan also seemed like a place were he could strike a balance between teaching, research and family.
"I didn't want to do (teaching and research) well at the expense of having time for my family," said Liepman, whose children are 2 and 4 years old. "One of the feelings I got about working at research-intensive places is that your tenure can depend on if you get the next grant. I'm not sure I've achieved a balance. In fact, I'm quite sure I haven't. But I feel like if I need to be somewhere or do something with my family, I can do that. I do end up sometimes pushing work late into the night. But (the flexibility to do that) is one of the nice things afforded by this sort of career.
"I love what I do, so it's not painful to spend time doing it," he added.
Liepman wasn't so sure what he wanted to do when he started college at the University of Michigan. Through prerequisite courses, he discovered an affinity for biology and chemistry. But he didn't really settle on a path until, near the end of his junior year, his advisor put together an ambitious and intensive schedule made up almost entirely of biology classes.
"What I discovered was just how amazing it was," Liepman said. "I had several fantastic professors who had incredible knowledge and just inspired me."
One turned genetics into a series of fascinating puzzles; another shared the experiences of worldwide travel and an encyclopedic knowledge of the plant world. Liepman was captivated by genetic engineering and the idea that, by genetically manipulating plants, he could conduct research that had the potential to help people - guilt free. No animals harmed in the making of this knowledge.
"I had access to some amazing teachers that took the time to help me develop," Liepman said. "That is something I aspire to do. I have the ability to have a very profound impact on the path that some students take. So I try to remember the things my teachers did that were helpful, and do the same."
He's mentored 13 research students at EMU, and letters from those students paint a picture of someone who works tirelessly to help them push through roadblocks in research, polish presentations and put together their own grant applications. Liepman said it's about opening doors for them, the way others did for him.
"To me, (the Collins Award) illustrates the power of team effort and collaboration," Liepman said. "Without the support of my mentors, my colleagues, my lab team, and my family, there