The Society for In Vitro Biology established the Fellow Award to recognize outstanding professionals who have made significant contributions to the field of in vitro biology and demonstrated service to the Society.  The Society for In Vitro Biology honored Dr. Jeffrey Adelberg and Dr. Neal Stewart with Fellow Awards at the 2019 In Vitro Biology Meeting in Tampa, FL.  This issue of the In Vitro Report includes the Fellow Award article for Dr. Neal Stewart.  Dr. Jeffrey Adelberg’s Fellow Award article was included in a past issue of the In Vitro Report.

Dr. Neal Stewart receives the 2019 SIVB Fellow Award

C. Neal Stewart (Center) receives the SIVB Fellow Award from Randy Niedz (L) and Wayne Parrott (R).

Dr. Neal Stewart currently holds the Racheff Chair of Excellence of Plant Molecular Genetics at the University of Tennessee, which he has held since 2002. Prior to that, Dr. Stewart obtained his BS degree from North Carolina State University, where he double-majored in horticulture and agricultural education. His commitment to education has never waned since then. He earned an MA degree in Education from Appalachian State, followed in quick succession by an MS degree in Ecology and a PhD in Plant Physiology at Virginia Tech. He next started as an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It was not long before his pioneering work in both transgene ecology and intimidin projection in plants caught the attention of other groups, and he was offered an endowed chair at the University of Tennessee. There, he also serves as co-director of the Tennessee Plant Research Center, and as a Senior Bioscientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

In the area of scholarship Dr. Stewart has been a prolific researcher and writer, with a total of 270 journal articles, 8 books, and 100 book chapters and other articles. One of his papers on the Statistical analysis of PCR data (BMC Bioinformatics 2006) has been cited 1226 times! His publications reflect his research over the years. He has published on transgene ecology and introgression. These are two critical factors that must be considered every time an environmental risk assessment is done for a transgenic crop, and Neal’s work provides essential base line information. Neal has also designed innovative pollen containment systems that permit transgenic bioenergy crops to be deployed without raising environmental safety concerns. Other lines of work include the use of synthetic biology before it was known as such to design and create plants able to sense and detect pathogens, explosives, and other chemical contaminants. He has also designed and implemented a synthetic promoter that responds to cyst nematode infections. When combined with a salicylic acid methyl transferase, we believe Neal has engineered the first truly convincing and effective resistance to this nematode, despite the fact that other groups have been trying for over 20 years. To explain the significance of this development, it must be noted that soybean is now tied with corn as the most widely planted crops in the US, and soybean cyst nematode is the worst disease of soybean, costing over $1.2 billion in losses every year.

Dr. Stewart is mostly devoted to development of bioenergy feedstocks these days, but maintains other innovative projects. For example, ivy produces nanoparticles that allow it to adhere to walls and trees, and Neal is exploiting these nanoparticles for other uses. Suffice it to say that Web of Science calculates Neal’s h-index to be a highly respectable 46, and his work has been cited over 8000 times. Neal’s statistics are even more impressive in Google Scholar, which shows over 13,000 citations and a whopping 56 for h-index.

C. Neal Stewart, Jr. accepts the 2019 Fellow Award during the Plant Biotechnology Section Business Meeting in Tampa, Florida.

Dr. Stewart is also a dedicated teacher and mentor to students.  Despite Neal’s intense research appointment, he has never stopped teaching. He currently teaches a course in Plant Biotechnology and Genetics, and one in Research Ethics.  He currently is training 4 graduate students and had graduated an additional 38.  He counts 50 postdocs and visiting scientists to his credit and is currently hosting eight more. At the same time, he has advised some 100 undergraduate students, and involved several hundred undergrads in his lab and field work. Despite his role in student training within his laboratory, Neal’s greatest contribution may very well be his ‘Plant Biotechnology and Genetics’ textbook, now in its second edition. The book covers the principles, techniques, and applications of plant biotechnology, but what sets this book apart is that it is so much more than just a collection of facts. It features biographical information for many of the scientists in the field. These biographies show students that careers in plant biotechnology are rewarding and satisfying. More importantly, they show students that scientists are people just like them, and that they too can become great scientists.

Dr. Stewart is also very active in outreach and community service activities. Neal is active in the university community, research community and professional society activities. He is the Plant Biotechnology Section Editor for BMC Biotechnology, the Reviews Editor for Plant Cell Reports, and an Associate Editor for Plant Biotechnology Journal. With an impact factor of 7.4, this latter journal has the highest impact factor of any of the journals that focus on plant biotechnology. Neal also chaired the USDA Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grant panels in 2015 and 2016, and serves on the ASPB Science Policy Committee since 2015. From 2014-2016, Neal served on the National Academies of Science committee that published “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” which is the most authoritative and comprehensive study on GMO crops carried out to date.

When he is not busy writing country songs and recording his performances on YouTube, Neal does outreach activities on GMOs. Some of these include talk radio 2015, a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, a tour of Hawaii talking with various groups and legislators 2017, and at least a couple general audience sessions per year, including Pint of Science and talks to retirement communities. We also want to highlight that when the corn research community urged NSF to come up with a comprehensive research strategy to overcome the current limitations to efficient transformation that most crops currently face, they needed widely recognized and respected leaders to organize a planning conference and develop a white paper. Neal was selected as one of the co-organizers. The final road map for additional transformation research is now published (Plant Cell 28: 1510-1520, 2016), with Neal as the senior author.

Last but not least are his contributions to the SIVB. He served as Associate Editor for In Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology–Plant (IVP) from 2007 to 2010. One of his papers (40: 542-551) is one of the top-cited articles ever published in IVP. A willing convener, he has thus far convened seven sessions or workshops at SIVB meetings. He actively promotes the SIVB. For example, while serving as a member of the National Academies GE Crops Committee, he convinced the Committee to invite a representative of SIVB to give a presentation and provide feedbacks to the National Academies.  Based on Dr. Neal Stewart’s outstanding academic achievements, and contributions towards the plant in vitro research community and SIVB, he is richly deserving of the SIVB Fellow award.

Submitted by:
Wayne Parrott, Professor
University of Georgia
Department of Crop & Soil Sciences
Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics
Center for Applied Genetic Technologies 

Zengyu Wang, Professor
Grassland Agri-Husbandry Research Center
Qingdao Agricultural University,
Qingdao, People’s Republic of China