Two Virginia Tech faculty are among the 314 recipients of the 2019 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which was last awarded in 2016.

The awards, given to Megan O’Rourke, an assistant professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Megan Wawro, an associate professor of mathematics in the College of Science, were recently announced by the White House.

Known as PECASE for short, the awards are “the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology,” according to the White House. Eighty of the 314 winners were nominated by the National Science Foundation, among them Wawro. O’Rourke was among seven recipients nominated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Megan O’Rourke

O’Rourke examines the value of biodiversity in agriculture and the environmental impacts of different agricultural production systems.

Her interdisciplinary work includes issues ranging from climate change to Bacillus thuringiensis resistance measures to pest management in developing countries.

O’Rourke’s PECASE award builds on her National Institute of Food and Agriculture research initiative to examine how land-use patterns around farms and planting native wildflowers on farms contribute to pest management, pollination, wildlife conservation, and crop productivity. Moving forward, O’Rourke is working on how to seed native wildflowers into pasture grazing systems, which could transform millions of acres of farmland so that it can maintain animal production while also conserving pollinators.

She has international and policy experience working with the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service as the organization’s climate change advisor, and she has worked as a foreign service officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Cambodia on food security and environment programs. In 2018, she was part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Global Opportunity Initiative, which is a cohort-based faculty development program run by CALS Global geared toward capacity building, network development, and building teams to pursue global funding initiatives.

O’Rourke earned her bachelor’s degree from Stony Brook University in 2002, her master’s degree from Iowa State University in 2005, and her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2010.

Megan Wawro

Wawro’s PECASE award builds on her National Science Foundation CAREER Award, received in 2015, and is dedicated to investigating students’ understanding of linear algebra in quantum physics.

The project has three focus points: Understand the various ways students are able to reason about and symbolize concepts related to eigentheory in quantum physics, examine how language and symbols compare and contrast across mathematics and quantum physics contexts, and understand how instructors’ use of language and mathematical symbols might relate to students’ understanding of eigentheory in quantum physics.

This research can help educators understand how students realize complex topics across a wide area of STEM curriculum, Wawro said.

Wawro earned her bachelor’s degree from Cedarville University in 2000 and her master’s degree from Miami University in 2005, both in mathematics, and a Ph.D. in mathematics and science education from the University of California San Diego and San Diego State University in 2011.

Established in 1996, the PECASE award acknowledges scientists and engineers who have made advances in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics research, as well as to community service as demonstrated by scientific leadership, public education, and community outreach, according to the White House Office of Science and Technology website.

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