Alumni News

October 25, 2017 at 1:37 pm

Notable Alumni | Plant Biology’s Research Career Started at OHIO

Graphic for College of Arts & Sciences Notable Alumni Award

Editor’s Note: The College of Arts & Sciences launches the Notable Alumni Awards, honoring 37 Notable Alumni in 2017 for broad accomplishments in their careers, a commitment to community service, and valuable contributions to Ohio University, the College of Arts & Sciences, and its students.

Dr. Ben Holt, ’96M.S. Plant Biology

Ohio University alum Dr. Ben Holt has cultivated a lifelong passion for biology, with his specific interests constantly morphing throughout his life, education, and career. It all started at OHIO.

Holt is now Associate Professor of Microbiology and Plant Biology at the University of Oklahoma.

“I have returned once to give an invited seminar, and OHIO continues to be the most formative transition in my research and scientific career,” Holt says. “I wasn’t actually a star academic student as an undergraduate, so my M.S. work at OHIO was really where I turned a corner and took my academic life in a consistently positive direction.”

Dr. Gar Rothwell allowed me to sneak into his lab when I wasn’t working on my main project and work on completely separate research ideas. More than anyone, Gar was the person who taught me how to be a scientist and how write a scientific paper. We literally sat at the computer, side-by-side, and wrote my first paper together. I was incredibly fortunate to attend OHIO when I did.”

Dr. Ben Holt

Dr. Ben Holt

Holt’s early passion for the outdoors turned into an undergraduate education at Frostburg State University in Western Maryland where he majored in Wildlife and Fisheries Management and studied fish populations in native streams. He went on work for RMC Environmental Services as a Fisheries Biologist, where he studied fish passage through hydroelectric facilities. However, while still an undergraduate, he had the opportunity to manage a farm for a year, planting the seeds, so to speak, for a growing interest in plant biology.

In 1994, he was attracted to Ohio University because of the large teaching and research garden (now the Plant Biology Learning Gardens) located at West State Street. During those formative years in his education, Holt studied plant biology in the Environmental & Plant Biology Department under the guidance of Dr. Ivan Smith.

His research involved studies of crop productivity in the field, including many, many tiring, but highly rewarding, hours working in the sun at the West State Street garden site. After completing his M,S. with Smith at Ohio, Holt moved on to Ph.D. research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill under the mentorship of National Academy of Sciences member Dr. Jeff Dangl.

Ben Holt with hat

Once again Holt stayed with biology, but shifted to molecular biology research. During this time, he was part of a team that was on the cutting edge of describing the mechanisms of plant disease resistance—research that was published in high impact journals, such as Science, Cell, and Developmental Cell.

After finishing his Ph.D. and postdoctoral research at UNC, Holt’s research interests once again shifted as he started his own lab at the University of Oklahoma and began exploring plant development and responses to environmental stress.

During his tenure at Oklahoma, now in its 12th year, Holy has continued to be published in top journals, and his lab is a world leader in plant genetics, with special expertise in gene expression mechanisms and how they regulate plant development. In particular, his lab is well-known for research on the genes necessary for defining how plants know to when flower.

Additionally, Holt spent 2014-16 as the program director for Plant, Fungal, and Microbial Development and the Evolution of Development at the National Science Foundation. In 2012 he was awarded the highly prestigious CAREER award by NSF and has been consistently well-funded throughout his research career.

In addition to his research, Holt is particularly well-known for his encouragement of undergraduate research, where he has trained more than two dozen students in his lab and was awarded as the campus-wide Outstanding Mentor in 2008.

Favorite Bobcat Memories

“There are many. Halloween on Court Street, ecology field trips, and hours by myself in the garden doing research and growing food for the Southeastern Ohio Food Bank. But the first thing that comes to mind is Gary Trent, the ‘Shaq of the MAC,'” Holt says.

“When I was at OHIO, I was newly married with my son who is now 24 years old. At that time, I had no money and was just barely getting by (as in, buying a soda was special!). However, basketball games were free with a student ID, and I attended every one I could. Watching the games I felt like I was part of something bigger and, more importantly, a little richer for a few hours—and nothing was better than an alley-oop from Geno Ford, ending in a big Gary Trent slam dunk.”

Ohio University Mentors

“There were numerous Ohio faculty who impacted me in incredibly positive ways. Highlights were Brian McCarthy, whom I had known from Frostburg State University; he put in a good word for me to get accepted to OHIO in the first place. I still use his example of uncompromising high expectations in my own teaching today,” Holt says.

“Dr. Ivan Smith was my mentor, but it’s important to say that my research didn’t actually align with other faculty members at the time. Ivan graciously gave me space and encouraged me to go for it; after all these years, I understand that this was an incredibly rare opportunity.

Dr. Art Trese was a good friend and someone I trusted for thoughtful life advice.

“Finally, Dr. Gar Rothwell allowed me to sneak into his lab when I wasn’t working on my main project and work on completely separate research ideas. More than anyone, Gar was the person who taught me how to be a scientist and how write a scientific paper. We literally sat at the computer, side-by-side, and wrote my first paper together. I was incredibly fortunate to attend OHIO when I did.”

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