Argo presented Joy Sparks Spirit of 4-H Award for Sussex County

October 10, 2013 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Mary Argo receives the Joy Sparks Spirit of 4-H awardDelaware 4-H has announced Mary Argo as the 2013 recipient of the Joy Sparks Spirit of 4-H Award for Sussex County.

Argo was honored during the Sussex County 4-H annual achievement celebration held Sept. 28 at the University of Delaware’s Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown before an audience of approximately 150 4-H family members and supporters.

Joy Sparks Spirit of 4-H Award winners in New Castle and Kent counties will be announced at later 4-H events.

Argo, who retired in April 2013 as Sussex 4-H educator, was surprised as her name was called and she was asked to come to the stage. In attendance to support her grandchildren in 4-H and to present the Friend of 4-H Award to volunteer leader William Campbell, Argo was continuing her career tradition of happily handing out awards to others. Her arrival on stage to accept the honor was met with a standing ovation.

“This is a surprise. I had not a clue about this,” Argo exclaimed. “I have been very, very jealous of all the people who have gone before who have won this. This is a wonderful, wonderful award. I can’t think of anyone finer to follow than Joy Sparks.”

The Joy Sparks Spirit of 4-H Award was established in 2009 in memory of the Delaware 4-H program leader who died in February of that year. The honor recognizes outstanding achievement in individuals who exhibit dedication, enthusiasm and embody 4-H values. The four H’s of the program represent “head, heart, hands and health,” which members and volunteers pledge to dedicate to their club, community and country through leadership, citizenship and the furtherance of life skills and community service.

Argo’s career began at the University of Delaware 23 years ago, and she spent the last 18 as Sussex County 4-H agent.

One of Argo’s signature events was coordinating the annual 4-H Spring Farm Tours at Green Acres Farm, an event that invites area school children to visit Delaware’s largest dairy farm, which is owned and operated by the Hopkins family of Lewes.

Each year, for two days in May, this valuable partnership welcomes between 1,500 and 2,000 youth who embark on discovery and participate in the sounds, smells and textures offered as lessons in an authentic agricultural experience — oftentimes receiving their first introduction to Cooperative Extension and the University.

With the help of Argo’s colleagues at the Carvel center, tens of thousands of young students have been reached through this one event alone during her tenure as 4-H agent.

Argo was recognized for her belief in the value of personal visits, through which she cultivated many strong community relationships throughout her career.

A particular favorite program Argo initiated was Fridays with 4-H, an after school program at La Casita in Georgetown. Every Friday, Argo introduced 4-H curriculum and experiential learning activities. The outreach program impacted hundreds of Latino youth in Sussex County and was the direct result of Argo’s networking and personal touch in her community.

“All who know Mary never fail to mention her tireless work ethic, positive outlook and enthusiastic dedication to make 4-H available to every child in Delaware,” said Mark Manno, Delaware 4-H program leader, as he read from the nomination. “She has never missed an opportunity to shine the spotlight on an accomplishment of a 4-H youth member or adult volunteer.”

Argo joined 4-H at the age of 10, as an inaugural member of the Broadkill Kool Kats 4-H Club, a club founded by her mother, Frances Millman. As an adult, Argo served as the club’s organizational leader for 12 years.

In 1986, Argo was inducted into the prestigious 4-H alumni organization known as the Sussex County 4-H Order of the Link. Two of Argo’s daughters are currently Delaware 4-H leaders, and 10 of her 11 grandchildren are currently enrolled in Delaware 4-H.

Argo was joined on stage by members of Joy Sparks’ family, brother Alex Gooden and niece Lindsay Gooden Hughes, who presented Argo with the award.

Donald Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute at UD, was not able to join family members at the ceremony but later said, “Mary richly deserves the 2013 Joy Sparks Spirit of 4-H Award. Her numerous contributions to Delaware 4-H will be long lasting. I wish her the very best.”

Article and photo by Michele Walfred

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UD’s Sparks to chair national soil science committee

April 19, 2013 under CANR News

Donald SparksDonald L. Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair in Soil and Environmental Chemistry at the University of Delaware, has been appointed to a three-year term as chair of the U.S. National Committee for Soil Science (USNC/SS).

From 1999 to 2008, he was an ex-officio member of the USNC/SS and has served as a full member of the committee since 2010.

The USNC/SS advises the National Academies on issues related to soil science and is also the formal representative of the U.S. soil science community to the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS). It provides input to the union on behalf of U.S. soil scientists, arranges for scientific meetings in the United States in consonance with the union’s objectives, and directs attention to soil science research needs.

“I am honored to serve as chair of the U.S. National Committee for Soil Science,” Sparks said. “Soil science is at the center of all the major global challenges we face today including water, land degradation, climate change, contamination and food security. As chair of the committee, I will work with my colleagues to promote the importance of soil and the discipline of soil science to the global community.”

“I cannot imagine a better lead representative of the U.S. soil science community than Don Sparks,” said Paul Bertsch, the outgoing chair of the USNC/SS and professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at the University of Kentucky. “He is among the most respected soil scientists worldwide. He brings critical leadership skills along with a deep recognition of the primary international soil science societies as well as the most important issues surrounding this global resource.”

The USNC/SS is one of several U.S. national committees focused on specific scientific disciplines within the National Research Council’s (NRC) Board on International Scientific Organizations. The national committees as a whole perform the dual function of fostering U.S. participation in international science and fortifying communication linkages between the U.S. and international scientific communities.

In addition to addressing research needs in their respective fields, the national committees are encouraged to work together to identify areas where cross-disciplinary teamwork may be more effective.

In addition to Sparks, the USNC/SS is composed of 10 at-large members, six members representing various allied scientific societies, and several ex officio and staff members representing the National Academies, of which the NRC is one branch. All committee members must be approved by the chair of the NRC.

Sparks has been active in the international soil science community for many years. He served as the president of the IUSS from 2002–06 and past president from 2006–10. In 2010 he received that organization’s von Liebig Medal for his outstanding contributions to soil science research and, most recently, was elected an honorary member of IUSS.

Sparks is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Soil Science Society of America, the Geochemical Society, and the European Society of Geochemists. He has also served as president of the Soil Science Society of America.

Sparks has been a faculty member in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources since 1979 and served as chair of the department for 20 years. He was the first recipient of UD’s Outstanding Graduate Advising and Mentoring Award. In 1996, he received the Francis Alison Award, the highest academic honor bestowed at UD.

Article by Beth Chajes

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UD’s Sparks one of six soil scientists honored at international meeting

July 3, 2012 under CANR News

Donald L. Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair in Soil and Environmental Chemistry in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), was recently elected an honorary member of the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS).

The honor was announced at the IUSS meeting on June 6 in Jeju, Korea. It is the highest honor awarded by the professional society, which represents more than 50,000 soil scientists from around the world.

Sparks was one of just six soil scientists presented with the honorary membership this year, and he is only the 15th American so recognized since the IUSS was founded in 1924.

“I am told that I am the youngest soil scientist ever elected for this honor,” Sparks said. “To say the least, I am deeply honored.”

In his letter nominating Sparks for the recognition, Paul M. Bertsch of the U.S. National Academies Committee for Soil Science, cited Sparks’ research in the areas of kinetics of soil chemical processes, surface chemistry of soils and soil components using in-situ spectroscopic and microscopic techniques, and the physical chemistry of soil potassium.

Sparks has pioneered the application of chemical kinetics to soils and soil minerals, including the development of widely used methods, elucidation of rate-limiting steps and mechanisms, and coupling of kinetic studies with molecular scale investigations, particularly synchrotron-based x-ray absorption spectroscopy.

“His discoveries on the formation and role of surface precipitates in the retention, fate and transport of metals in natural systems have received worldwide attention and had major impacts in the areas of sorption models, metal speciation and soil contamination and remediation,” Bertsch said.

Bertsch also cited Sparks’ extensive service to the International Union of Soil Sciences. He has served as president (2002-06) and past president (2006-10) of IUSS, and was a member of the Presidential Election Committee (2010). He currently serves in the Electoral Committee and chairs the Committee on Statutes and Structures. He received the society’s von Liebig Medal in 2010 for career achievements in soil science research.

Sparks was also vice chair (elected in 1994) and then chair (elected in 1998) of the Soil Chemistry Commission of the International Soil Science Society. He assisted in organizing a number of symposia and presented plenary and keynote lectures at IUSS Congresses.

From 1999 to 2008, he served as ex-officio member in the National Research Council’s U.S. National Committee for Soil Science, serving as full member of the committee since 2010. He also served as president of the Soil Science Society of America.

Among his many honors, Sparks is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Soil Science Society of America, the American Society of Agronomy, the Geochemical Society, and the European Association of Geochemistry. He is the recipient of UD’s Francis Alison and Doctoral Student Advising and Mentoring awards, the Sir Frederick McMaster Fellowship from Australia’s CSRIO and the Sterling Hendricks Medal from USDA.

Article by Beth Chajes

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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Tipping Point

June 15, 2012 under CANR News

Donald L. Sparks, the S. Hallock du Pont Chair in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute, has written an article featured in the Huffington Post titled, “Tipping Point.”

To view the article, visit the website.

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Delaware EPSCoR announces 2012 seed grant recipients

March 7, 2012 under CANR News

The Delaware EPSCoR program has awarded seven seed grants to University of Delaware faculty whose projects address current environmental issues within the state.

EPSCoR, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, is a federal grant program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) that helps states develop their research capabilities so that they may compete for further federal funding.

Seed grants are typically in the $50,000 range and help researchers set the stage for applications to larger federal funding programs. Seed grant proposals are solicited annually during the fall semester. The selections were made by a committee of five senior faculty affiliated with the Delaware EPSCoR program and two external reviewers representing the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC). This year’s funded projects are as follows:

Microbes that remove arsenic from rice

Rice is a staple in diets across the globe, but it is commonly contaminated by arsenic (As) in many developing nations. To solve this problem, University of Delaware scientists Harsh Bais and Janine Sherrier of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences have proposed that the inoculation of rice with the bacterium EA106 will reduce arsenic accumulation within the edible portion of the plant, simultaneously improving quality and yield. Arsenic-contaminated rice represents a significant health risk to millions of people worldwide; in their research Bais and Sherrier plan to “systematically dissect the overall mechanism in As absorption and translocation in rice.” Their efforts will further probe the field of plant-microbial processes and how they may be used to agricultural advantage.

Impact of terrestrial phosphorus on eutrophication in the Chesapeake Bay

Principal investigator Deb Jaisi, assistant professor, and Donald Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Soil and Environmental Chemistry, both of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, will investigate the concentrations of terrestrial and nonterrestrial phosphorus (P) input into the Chesapeake Bay over time. The prevailing notion is that the level of nonterrestrial P has remained constant since early civilization, and thus terrestrial P is the sole culprit in the eutrophication (increased concentrations of nutrients which result in algae blooms and fish kills) of the Chesapeake Bay. However, observed changes in the bottom water environment indicate that this is unlikely. Their study will influence future management strategies to limit nutrient pollution, with regulations possibly addressing both terrestrial and nonterrestrial P input. Sparks is director of the Delaware Environmental Institute.

Article by Jacob Crum

Photos by Ambre Alexander and Kathy F. Atkinson

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Department of Plant and Soil Sciences cultivates next leaders

November 28, 2011 under CANR News

University of Delaware-trained plant and soil scientists continue to build on the institution’s stellar reputation, with six winning recent national honors.

One graduate student and five graduate alumni of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) were presented awards by the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) and the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) at the national meetings of the societies in San Antonio, Texas.

Honorees are alumni Josh McGrath, Chad Penn and Amy Shober, who were advised by Tom Sims, CANR deputy dean and T.A. Baker Professor of Soil and Environmental Chemistry; Daniel Strawn and Kirk Scheckel, who were advised by Donald L. Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Professor of Soil and Environmental Chemistry and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute; and Sudarshan Dutta, who recently completed his doctorate under the direction of Shreeram Inamdar, associate professor of plant and soil sciences.

Josh McGrath, a distinguished young CANR alumnus who earned his doctorate degree in plant and soil sciences in 2004, received the SSSA S6 Young Scholar Award, which recognizes young scientists who have made an outstanding contribution in Soil and Water Management and Conservation within seven years of completing their Ph.D.

McGrath is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, and his research interests include nutrient management and environmental sustainability. McGrath leads an active research and extension program aimed at providing science-based, reliable and cutting-edge information in the arena of agricultural nutrient management, nutrient use efficiency, non-point source nutrient pollution and water quality protection.

In just a few short years, McGrath’s work has become widely recognized for its impact on sustaining agricultural productivity and improving environmental quality in the mid-Atlantic region.

Chad Penn, who earned his master’s degree in 2001, received the SSSA S-11 Young Investigator Award, which recognizes worthy professionals who have made an outstanding contribution in soils and environmental quality research within seven years of completing their terminal degree. The award comes with a certificate of recognition and $500.

Penn has worked at Oklahoma State University since 2005 as an assistant professor of soil and environmental chemistry. His current research is focused on water quality, the re-use of industrial by-products in agriculture and for environmental protection, nutrient and animal waste management, transport of phosphorus to surface waters, and thermodynamics of sorption and other soil chemical processes via isothermal titration calorimetry.

Amy Shober, who received her doctorate in plant and soil sciences from UD in 2006, won the ASA Environmental Quality Section Inspiring Young Scientist Award, which is awarded to professionals who have made an outstanding contribution toward sustaining agriculture through environmental quality research, teaching, extension or industry activity within seven years of completing their terminal degree.

Shober works as an assistant professor of landscape soil and nutrient management in the Soil and Water Science Department at the University of Florida. Her research and Cooperative Extension appointments focus on nutrient management in Florida’s urban landscapes.

Daniel Strawn, who received his doctorate from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in 1999, received the Marion L. and Chrystie M. Jackson Soil Science Award. Strawn is a professor of soil chemistry at the University of Idaho and his program focuses on research and teaching of soil chemistry and mineralogy with a special emphasis on the discovery of chemical and mineral speciation in soils. He is an associate editor for the Soil Science Society of America Journal.

Strawn joins a long list of UD plant and soil sciences graduates who have received the Marion L. and Chrystie M. Jackson award. Sparks was the first recipient of the award in 1991 and since then five graduates of the department have received the distinguished award.

Kirk Scheckel, who received his doctorate from UD in 2000 and won the Marion L. and Chrystie M. Jackson award in 2010, was named a fellow of the ASA and SSSA.

Scheckel is a research soil scientist in the National Risk Management Research Laboratory of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. He is an adjunct faculty member at Ohio State University and his research focuses on element speciation in soils, sediments and water to elucidate reaction mechanisms that influence fate in the natural environment. He served as associate editor for the Journal of Environmental Quality and as chair of S-11, a division of SSSA. He is active in SSSA, ASA and the American Chemical Society.

Sudarshan Dutta, who recently completed his doctorate in the department, was awarded the SSSA S-11 Soil and Environmental Quality Graduate Student Award.

Dutta received a certificate and $500 for his achievement, and impressed the award committee with his research record and the contributions he has made in the area of soil and environmental quality.

Sparks said of the awards and what they mean to the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, “They’re just a testament to the quality of our graduate studies programs and the training the students get. It also indicates the reputation the University’s programs have built — people recognize that those who come out of these programs are really first rate. Over the years we’ve developed a strong program in soil science that is recognized nationally and internationally.”

Part of this strength, according to Sparks, is derived from the ability to attract outstanding students to the graduate program. “You attract good students and then you give them a fair amount of freedom,” he said. “It is a combination of having bright students working on significant research problems, and giving them the flexibility and the freedom to pursue knowledge.”

Sparks also pointed out the outstanding equipment, facilities, grant support and faculty members who have been “good role models and mentors for these students.”

Sims said of the awards, “We’re very proud of the accomplishments of the graduates of our soil science program. It’s rewarding to see so many of our former graduate students become very successful faculty at top-ranked universities and to have their successes recognized by these prestigious awards. Their research and extension programs are cutting-edge and address some of the most important areas we face today as we to ensure a safe and secure food supply for more than 7 billion people worldwide and protect our environment for future generations.”

Article by Adam Thomas

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Deb Jaisi joins the CANR faculty

June 8, 2011 under CANR News

Deb Jaisi, assistant professor of environmental biogeochemistry, has joined the faculty at the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Jaisi said that he decided to come to the University of Delaware because he was looking for a university that was well established but also tries to promote new ideas with new faculty where it feels like a fresh start. His particular area of research expertise also meshed well with what is currently going on in the state of Delaware and the surrounding area.

“My research is primarily in phosphorous geochemistry, and when I talked to Dr. Sparks during my interview I realized, ‘phosphorous is such a big issue here in DE’ with regards to the agricultural farms, Chesapeake and Delaware Bays.”

Jaisi also said that, “Sometimes a job interview becomes an important experience that invigorates your idea and instills more scientific curiosity on what you have done or are doing. That makes this particular job even more exciting. My science, which is isotope geochemistry, can really help to explore more and identify how and why the phosphorous has been released to the surface water and ground water. With that being said, the ‘applied’ aspect of my research aims to find out the culprit of phosphorus release in these areas.”

Another big reason that influenced Jaisi’s decision to come to UD was the fact that he wanted to collaborate with renowned professors, such as Donald Sparks, S. Hallock DuPont Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Tom Sims, deputy dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the T.A. Baker Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, and potentially with other professors in the area of plant-soil interactions. Said Jaisi, “To be at a college with Dr. Sparks, whose legacy I highly respect, is a rather great opportunity.”

Jaisi also said that Delaware is a great place to raise kids, “it’s very close to big cities, but it’s not suffocating like staying in big cities. It’s a very, very nice place.”

After growing up in Nepal and earning his undergraduate degree in geology from Tribhuvan University, Jaisi went on to Thailand where he received his Master’s degree in engineering from the Asian Institute of Technology, before traveling to Miami University in Ohio to receive his Ph.D. Jaisi also conducted his post-graduate work at Yale University.

Jaisi did not teach a course last semester and explained that his appointment is mostly for research. He does, however, plan to teach one course each year on his own and co-teach another course with a fellow faculty member.

As for the research side, Jaisi has plans to establish a stable isotopes laboratory, which he describes as a “very intensive process” that he expects will take up to about a year to complete, with the laboratory hopefully being set up by the end of 2011.

Article by Adam Thomas
Photo by Danielle Quigley

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CANR awards help University graduate students with research

May 26, 2011 under CANR News

The William J. Benton Graduate Student Awards and the Donald L. and Joy G. Sparks Graduate Fellowship Award have been helping University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) graduate students with their research since 2007, and this year’s winners are no exception.

Sudarshan Dutta in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences has been awarded the 2011 W.J. Benton Graduate Student Award for doctoral students and Jacob Fooks in the Department of Food and Resource Economics has been awarded the Benton Award for master’s students.

Matt Siebecker, a doctoral level student in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, has received the 2011 Donald L. and Joy G. Sparks Graduate Fellowship Award.

William J. Benton Graduate Student Awards

The awards were established in honor of William J. Benton, former CANR associate dean of research and professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

Dutta is researching the transport of hormones in agricultural runoff from soils receiving poultry manure. Dutta explained that in many U.S. states, land application of poultry manure is a common practice and that it is important to make sure that this agricultural management practice is safe for the environment in all aspects.

Of the award, Dutta said, “I consider this award very motivating and helpful for a young researcher like me who wants to continue his career in research in an academic setting.”

Fooks’ primary research focuses on behavioral and experimental economics, revolving around the behavior of landowners in voluntary conservation programs. Fooks has also done work to reduce stigma towards individuals with HIV in Kenya and India, and he said that he is currently working on a project that measures the visual impact of offshore wind farms.

Fooks said that he was “very honored to be chosen for this award,” and credited his adviser, Kent Messer, assistant professor of food and resource economics, and the rest of the food and resource economics faculty for giving him support.

Read more at UDaily > >

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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CANR promotes nutrient management, water quality efforts in China

November 10, 2010 under CANR News

The University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) has recently taken a leadership role in organizing and presenting at two international symposia in Beijing, China. Through an ongoing partnership with China Agricultural University (CAU), CANR officials say they hope to provide sound advice and direction for the latest agricultural issues in China.

In 2008, UD signed an agreement with CAU and the University of Pennsylvania Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, to participate in joint research and exchange activities.

The fourth International Symposium on Phosphorus Dynamic in the Soil-Plant Continuum (ISPDSPC) provided a forum for international scientists to share their latest research findings and knowledge on phosphorus dynamics and management in food-producing and other managed and unmanaged ecosystems.

At this conference, keynote speeches were given by Donald Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Soil Chemistry, and Tom Sims, deputy dean of CANR and T. A. Baker Professor of Soil and Environmental Chemistry.

Sims was a part of the international steering committee for this event. There were approximately 300 people in attendance.

Following ISPDSPC was the third International Workshop on Nutrient Management Technology and Policy, which was hosted by CAU and UD, and also joined by Wageningen University and Research Centre of the Netherlands.

Sims presented a keynote talk entitled “Nutrient Management Strategies in the USA: Integrating Science, Policy, and Management to Sustain Agricultural Productivity and Protect the Environment.”

David Hansen, associate professor of soil and environmental quality and Cooperative Extension specialist for nutrient management, spoke about the issues related to the development of a comprehensive nutrient management training program in China.

This conference also provided CAU graduate students with a training course on nutrient management tools and nutrient balance at different scales. U.S. and European experts alike shared their experiences with and how to improve upon best nutrient management practices and policies.

After the conference in Beijing, CAU hosted a tour of the new Quzhou agricultural research center, where a large-scale Chinese project focused on improving nutrient management, protecting water quality, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is now underway.

“At CANR, our nutrient management efforts have been recognized globally,” Sims said. “By using our years of research and extension experience on nutrient management in Delaware and Pennsylvania, we hope to put China’s researchers in a better position to solve their agri-environmental problems.”

In August 2011, the fourth International Workshop on Nutrient Management Technology and Policy will be hosted at UD. For more information about this workshop, see the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management website.

Article by Rachael Dubinsky

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Sparks wins distinguished mentoring award from Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools

April 19, 2010 under CANR News

Donald L. Sparks, the University of Delaware’s S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Soil and Environmental Chemistry and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute, has won the Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award from the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools.

The prestigious award, bestowed in memory of the association’s former president, recognizes outstanding mentoring support of graduate students.

Sparks received the award, which included a certificate and cash prize of $1,000, on Friday, April 16, in Montreal at the annual meeting of the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools. The association, one of four regional affiliates of the Council of Graduate Schools, has members from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec.

So far, during his distinguished 31-year career at the University of Delaware, Sparks has mentored 49 graduate students, from coursework through research and job placement. He has created an internationally prominent graduate program in environmental soil chemistry, authored more than 280 scientific publications and three textbooks, served as an invitational speaker at 67 universities and institutes on four continents, successfully competed for more than $31 million in research contracts and grants, and won numerous awards and honors, including the University’s highest academic recognition, the Francis Alison Award, and UD’s Doctoral Student Advising and Mentoring Award, of which he was the first recipient.

Yet the accomplishments of his students give Sparks the greatest satisfaction.

“You can be the greatest scientist or engineer in the world, but there’s more to it than that,” notes Sparks philosophically. “Mentoring students has been a wonderful part of my career — nothing has been more meaningful to me than to see them go out into the world as young scientists.”

“We congratulate Don on this terrific accomplishment and also honor his commitment to providing graduate students at the University of Delaware with the finest education possible,” said Debra Hess Norris, vice provost for graduate and professional education. “He is truly inspiring and serves as a role model for so many on our campus and beyond.”

The official nominating package, which was assembled and submitted by Norris and assistant provost Mary Martin, was filled with heartfelt testimonials from Sparks’ former students, as well as the admiration of faculty colleagues.

“The accomplishments of Don’s students are evidence that he provides sound advice with regard to coursework, expects excellence from his students, invests his own time in assuring student success, encourages timely publication and presentation of research results, and assists with placement of graduates in high-profile positions that will advance their careers,” noted Robin Morgan, dean of the UD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Sparks’ students in plant and soil sciences have earned numerous accolades over the years, including three Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor in the U.S. for beginning scientists and engineers; three UD Theodore Wolf Dissertation Prizes; two Emil Truog Soil Science Outstanding Dissertation Prizes; NSF and NASA graduate fellowships; three University Presidential Achievement Awards and other competitive fellowships; and the prestigious Clark Medal for postdoctoral research from the Geochemical Society of America and the European Association of Geochemists.

Former students wrote of Sparks’ concern for their success on both professional and personal levels.

Scott Fendorf, who received his doctorate in plant science from UD in 1992, and is now professor and chair of environmental and Earth system science at Stanford University, wrote: “My impression of Dr. Sparks is that he views his students as his children, and he is truly an amazing (academic) father to all of us — during not only our time as his students but throughout our careers. The time he afforded us to discuss matters of balancing personal and professional activities, where our careers should head, where jobs might be coming, and how to position ourselves to successfully obtain positions we sought were all regular points of conversation. Not only do I consider Dr. Sparks my Ph.D. adviser, but a life-long friend and mentor.”

Maarten Nachtegaal, who earned his doctorate in plant and soil sciences in 2003, and is now head of the In-Situ X-Ray Spectroscopy Group at the Paul Scherrer Institut in Switzerland, noted that Sparks even helped him with a first apartment rental.

“I am Dutch, so when I came to the U.S. I had no credit history,” Nachtegaal wrote. “Don signed the apartment lease for me and my wife so that we could rent an apartment, similarly as loving parents would have done. Don is not only the best mentor I could have ever wished for, but also a great friend for life.”

When asked the secret to his mentoring success, Sparks noted that setting a good example is important, as well as cultivating a positive group dynamic among his students, who are often diverse not only in their academic interests, but also in their cultural heritage.

“I’ve always had high standards,” says Sparks. “I expect a lot from my students, yet I also try to be a nice person. I want to be a really good scientific adviser, and also care a lot about my students as individuals. They see me working hard, too, and I feel that’s important.”

Sparks and his students meet as a group over lunch twice a month, and he meets individually with each student at least once a month. Dinners at his home are fun events that often involve the research group in preparing recipes from the home country of one of their international colleagues, from Swiss fondue to Chinese stir-fry. Such events are entertaining, educational, and help build a strong esprit de corps, Sparks says.

Also important, Sparks says, is giving students the independence to explore research questions, as well as professional opportunities to co-author papers, work on research grants, and present at conferences, which contributes to their maturity as scientists. In fact, some of his students have bypassed postdoctoral research and gone directly from graduate school into faculty positions.

“It’s been an amazing group of students,” Sparks notes. “Whatever I’ve accomplished, they’ve been a big part of.”

Article by Tracey Bryant
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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