Postdoctoral scholar Trevor Nolan wins Karas Award, Zaffarano Prize

May 02, 2019 - by Sarah Igram

Dr. Trevor Nolan, a postdoctoral scholar in the Genetics, Development & Cell Biology Department at Iowa State, is the recipient of two academic awards from the Graduate College. He has won the 2019 Karas Award for Outstanding Dissertations, as well as the 2019 Zaffarano Prize for Graduate Student Research.

The Karas Award recognizes excellence in doctoral research for students in four rotating disciplinary areas: Humanities and the Fine Arts, Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Engineering, Biological Sciences, and Social Sciences. The Zaffarano Prize is awarded to ISU graduate students who show superior performance in publishing research in academic journals.

Trevor Nolan

Nolan earned his Ph.D. from the Genetics and Genomics program at Iowa State in December of 2018. As a graduate student, he worked as a research assistant in the laboratory of genetics, development & cell biology professor Yanhai Yin.

“The core of our research is understanding how plants grow, so we study a plant steroid hormone called brassinosteroid,” Nolan said. “The brassinosteroid hormone promotes plant growth, but it also in many cases inhibits responses to stress, so we’re trying to understand what decides when plants grow, when they stop growing, and when they respond to stress. Once we understand that, we can better engineer it so we have plants that both grow well and survive during things like droughts.”

Nolan has been able to collaborate with students and faculty across several disciplines to conduct this research.

“My Ph.D. has been entirely collaborative, so instead of reinventing the wheel hundreds of times, I’ve worked with experts in robotics, computer science and machinery, and image processing,” he said. “You should learn how to do a lot of things yourself, but you should also tap into the resources that are present at a big university like Iowa State. We have so many people working on different and exciting areas, and if you can pull all those things and combine them, you can really accomplish a lot.”

During his time at Iowa State, Nolan has been awarded the Genetics and Genomics Research Excellence Award, a Brown Graduate Fellowship, and a Plant Sciences Institute Fellowship. He has published 10 peer-reviewed research articles in high-profile journals, as well as four review articles and one book chapter. He has also presented his work at several national and international meetings over the past few years.

Nolan first came to Iowa State as an undergraduate studying psychology. While taking an introductory genetics course, he got to know Steven Rodermel, a professor in the Genetics, Development & Cell Biology Department. After the course concluded, Nolan started working in Rodermel’s lab and studying plant biology.

“It was not something that was on my radar at all at that point. I thought I wanted to study some kind of medical research and maybe go on to become a doctor,” Nolan said. “But it turned out that working with plants is a really awesome system to address. The things we learn with plants can apply very broadly to humans and animals and other kinds of organisms.”

After earning his Bachelor of Science in Genetics, Nolan joined the Genetics and Genomics Ph.D. program. About a year into his graduate studies, he started working in Yin’s lab.

“Trevor is an exceptional student with unwavering passion for science, extraordinary motivation, high intelligence, unmatched work ethic, and outstanding leadership skills,” Yin wrote in his award nomination letter. “He has already made significant contributions, and he has what it takes to become a future leader in plant biology.”

Nolan’s dissertation, titled “To grow or survive: Plants modulate Brassinosteroid-regulated transcription factor BES1 during drought to balance growth and stress responses,” is a culmination of the innovative work he has done at Iowa State.

“Writing the dissertation was really pretty fun. You get to look back at all the things you did the last few years and celebrate the success that often came after tons of struggle. Often what happens in graduate school is you try something, you fail, you try to figure out why you failed, and keep doing this process many times and hopefully learning things along the way,” he said. “And at the end of the day, you finally hopefully figured out something new and you can write about it. But the struggle that goes into it never goes into the record. So getting to write it all up, you get to see how you overcame all that, and get to put together all the exciting parts.”

This July, Nolan will be joining Philip Benfey's lab in the Biology Department at Duke University as a postdoctoral researcher. As he gets ready to begin a new position, he is happy to see his team’s work recognized with the Karas Award and Zaffarano Prize.

“It’s nice to see it all come to a culmination of being able to finish grad school, and then also to have some recognition that what we’re doing is important and significant,” he said.

Tags: awards, genetics development and cell biology, genetics and genomics