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Plant Science Center names James Carrington as new president

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2010 - A year-long transitional period at one of the region's most notable scientific research facilities began to draw to a close this week with the announcement of a new head for the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

James C. Carrington, 50, was named Friday as the institution's next president. He will assume his duties in May. Carrington becomes the center's third leader, succeeding Phil Needleman who has held the post on an interim basis since October 2009. Roger Beachy, the center's first president, left last fall to become the first director of the newly created National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

"The board tapped into the notion that we wanted the strongest possible scientist who is also a splendid administrator and a people person," Needleman told assembled media during a morning press conference to announce the move. "We had rigorous criteria, almost unforgivable."

"We were impressed with his vision as well as his ability to work well with people and identify great scientists," said William H. Danforth, chairman of the center's board of trustees.

Needleman said Carrington, who emerged from a lengthy search process in which 18 leading plant scientists were asked to submit potential candidates, distinguished himself for his experience in dealing with the massive amounts of genomic data that are coming to dominate the plant science world.

"I've never seen a single candidate who so fit the moment, the ambitions, the place and the science," Needleman said.

Carrington, a Southern California native, has been director of the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing at Oregon State University since 2001. A graduate of the University of California with degrees in plant sciences and plant pathology, Carrington has been recognized with a number of honors including the Individual National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health, the Honored Alumni Award from his alma mater's alumni association and the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation. He has received various fellowships and named professorships and is a member of several professional groups including the American Society of Plant Biologists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Plant Molecular Biology Society. His pioneering work with "small RNA" was hailed as the "Breakthrough of the Year" for 2002 by the journal Science.

Previous to his time at OSU, he taught at Washington State and Texas A & M universities.

During a personal interview Thursday afternoon, Carrington told the Beacon he had become interested in science early on but developed a true passion for the field during his college years. He said his background is similar to that of Beachy, whom he's known for 25 years.

"The appeal of the laboratory -- doing research where you can actually discover something that other people don't know -- that was exciting and addictive," he said. "Once you make a discovery, even a tiny one, you want to make more discoveries."

Applying research to the real world

Plenty of discoveries await him at the center where he will helm the world's largest independent research institute dedicated to plant science, he says. Founded a dozen years ago through $135 million in gifts and tax credits, the not-for-profit center has a $20 million operating budget and attracts $11 million annually in grants. The center employs 210 people at its sprawling campus on Warson Road across from Monsanto, which originally donated the land for the center. Voted one of the "Best Places to Work in Academia" by the Scientist magazine, it encompasses an architecturally imposing main facility, a 12,000-square-foot greenhouse complex and the four-story Bio-Research and Development Growth Park that opened just last year.

Carrington cited the latter facility, known as BRDG Park, as an example of bringing Danforth's research to real-world applications.

"It connects the scientists and activity here at the center with the local community and commercial sector," he said. "It's where we can do commercialization and interact with companies through things like training programs that the St. Louis Community College runs. That's a very important piece of the center -- delivering the benefits of science to the local area and beyond."

BRDG Park also helps with another aspect of the center's work.

"One of the missions here is to promote economic development in the St. Louis region," he said. "We can do this by taking advantage of some really creative science that has the potential to form the foundation of companies. We can work with local companies to enhance what they want to do."

Carrington mentioned the recent World Food Day event in which nearly 2,000 volunteers packaged more than 300,000 meals for underserved populations in Africa. It's one way that the center is trying to translate its work into hands-on involvement for the general public.

"The center has a mission that is important, but most importantly it's a mission that the community can get involved in," he said.

But research is still the bread and butter of the Plant Science Center. Carrington spoke of the institution's ongoing work to increase the nutritional value of cassava to fight hunger in the developing world, and its involvement in identifying alternative energy sources through the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels. He noted that the center might be looking to add more scientific staff in the near future.

"There are a lot of areas in which plant science can make a real contribution. Some are quite obvious like food and malnutrition," he said. "Some are less so like replacing fossil fuels. Everyone understands that plants and plant-like organisms such as algae can displace much of our current consumption of fossil fuels with renewable, carbon-neutral sources."

Reached earlier this week by phone, Steve Kay, dean of the biology department at the University of California-San Diego described Carrington as an accomplished biologist with a likable, dry sense of humor. He said he couldn't imagine a better choice for the Plant Science Center position.

"He has an unmatched scientific acumen," said Kay, who has worked as an advisor to Carrington's Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing for eight years. "He's able to really get into very big fields before the crowd does."

Carrington is married to wife Teri. The couple has four grown children.

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.