Erik Nilsen, professor of biological sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, has been conferred the title of professor emeritus by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.

The emeritus title may be conferred on retired professors, associate professors, and administrative officers who are specially recommended to the board by Virginia Tech President Tim Sands in recognition of exemplary service to the university. Nominated individuals who are approved by the board receive a copy of the resolution and a certificate of appreciation.

A member of the Virginia Tech community since 1983, Nilsen’s research and scholarship has focused on the physiological ecology of higher plants, specifically the physiology of plants under stress, photosynthesis and water relations of invasive plant species, interaction between native and foreign invasive species, the vascular adaptation of rhododendron species to drought and freeze-thaw cycles, and cold tolerance of photosynthesis in biomass fuel plants. His research included international work in Ecuador; Baja, Mexico; Chile; Japan; and Thailand. His last research assignment, at the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburg, Scotland, was exceptionally rewarding.

Nilsen was the principal or co-principal investigator on more than 30 grants totaling $2.5 million. He received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other national granting agencies. He was the author or co-author of more than 90 peer-reviewed journal articles, 17 book chapters, and two books. Nilsen received an NSF grant for the construction of the Virginia Tech Biological Sciences and Biocomplexity Plant Growth Facility, built on Smithfield Road in 2007. He established and directed this facility until his retirement in 2020. Nilsen served as the graduate director for the Department of Biological Sciences from 2009 to 2010.

In the classroom, Nilsen taught both undergraduate and graduate courses and chaired multiple graduate student committees. Teaching undergraduates, particularly in the Integrated Science Curriculum, part of the Academy of Integrated Science; advising graduate students; and mentoring postdoctoral fellows were highlights of his career, Nilsen said.

Nilsen earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami in 1975, and a master’s degree and Ph.D., both from the University of California at Santa Barbara, in 1977 and 1980, respectively. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Irvine from 1980 to 1983.

Nilsen was a visiting researcher at the University of California Los Angeles. He also served as a visiting research ecologist at Stanford University. Nilsen served as an NSF program officer for two terms. He was the G.P Wilder Chair for Distinguished Botanist at the University of Hawaii.


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