(VIDEO) Herrera-Estrella will conduct his research in cotton genomics and molecular plant biology through the Department of Plant and Soil Science.
Texas Tech University's newest researcher and its first National Academy of Sciences (NAS) member was welcomed at a reception in the Red Raider Ballroom at the Student Union Building on Wednesday (Aug. 22), and he is eager to bring his expertise and knowledge to the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources.
Luis Rafael Herrera-Estrella will begin this fall as the newest faculty member in the Department of Plant and Soil Science. A widely respected researcher, Herrera-Estrella's arrival at Texas Tech was made possible by a $5 million grant from the State of Texas Governor's University Research Initiative (GURI) and matched by the university to bring the best and brightest researchers to Texas.
“There are a number of reasons why coming to Texas Tech is advantageous for my own research,” Herrera-Estrella said. “I think that Texas Tech has a very good environment to incubate new research programs. I see that the president, the vice president and the provost, they all have a very clear idea of how to promote research, and they want to make Texas Tech a very competitive university in the international arena for research. There is an environment here that can really facilitate the creation of a new and very competitive research program.”
One of the top plant molecular biologists in the world, Herrera-Estrella, the President's Distinguished Professor of Plant Genomics, will serve as the director of the Center for Functional Genomic of Abiotic Stress, which will examine how plants adapt to thrive in the presence of environmental stresses such as extreme heat and cold, drought and in the presence of brackish water sources.
Herrera-Estrella is known and respected worldwide for his work in cotton genomics, having earned the distinction in 2015 as one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology by Scientific American. He previously served as the director and full professor of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity (LANGEBIO) in Guanajuato, Mexico, where he will retain his position as a professor emeritus.
“This is a very significant occasion for us,” President Lawrence Schovanec said. “We are very grateful to Gov. Abbott for his vision in creating the Governor's University Research Initiative, which provided the funding that helped bring Dr. Estrella here. This is a hire and addition to our faculty that will contribute to all three of our priorities – educating and empowering a diverse student body, enabling creativity and research that stimulates innovation, and then transforming lives and communities through strategic outreach of scholarship. Dr. Estrella will make a significant contribution that will expand strategic research that is important to the region, the state and the nation.”
GURI was created in 2015 by Gov. Greg Abbott's Office of Economic Development & Tourism and the state legislature to encourage universities to bring the world's top researchers in the areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) to Texas. The matching grant program assists institutions of higher learning in Texas with recruiting distinguished researchers, particularly targeting Nobel laureates and members of the NAS, in an effort to further economic and workforce development.
Texas Tech officials convinced the state and the GURI Board of the importance of initiating this research at Texas Tech by demonstrating how the institute will be beneficial both to Texas Tech and the cotton industry, one of the top economic drivers in West Texas. The matching funds were required to originate from somewhere other than government-appropriated funding within the university's overall budget.
“As one of the top minds in plant molecular biology, Dr. Herrera-Estrella will be an invaluable addition to Texas Tech University and its new Center for Functional Genomic of Abiotic Stress,” Gov. Abbott said. “Texas Tech has already earned a reputation as one of the leading research institutions in the world, and Dr. Herrera-Estrella's research will further boost its reputation as a premier institution for higher education.”
The arrival of Texas Tech's first NAS member is expected to open the door for future members to come to Texas Tech and, hopefully, get current faculty members elected to the academy while elevating the university's research stature and highlighting the already groundbreaking research performed at Texas Tech.
According to his biography on the NAS website, Herrera-Estrella's research focuses on the molecular mechanisms that allow plants to cope with a continuously changing environment. In particular, he has studied the two fundamental processes of molecular responses to light as a source of energy and a developmental signal, and nutrient availability.
Herrera-Estrella identified DNA regulatory elements that allow plants to activate genes in response to light stimuli and the protein sequence present in many corresponding gene products that ultimately allow participation in the photosynthesis process.
A holder of 15 patents, Herrera-Estrella has published more than 180 research papers and 47 book chapters and other reviews while having delivered more than 200 presentations on his work. He served as a senior international research scholar at the Howard Hughes Biomedical Institute from 2012 to 2017 and earned the Dr. Luis Federico Leloir Award in 2012 from the Argentinian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.
A native of Mexico, Herrera-Estrella also has served as the president of the International Society of Plant Molecular Biology (2001-2003), and in 2000, earned the gold medal from the World Intellectual Property Organization as one of the most distinguished inventors in Mexico, one of only three Mexican citizens to receive this honor.
Herrera-Estrella earned his doctoral and postdoctoral degrees in genetics from the State University of Ghent, Belgium. He received his master's degree in genetics and molecular biology from the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional, and his bachelor's degree from Escuela Nacional de Ciencias Biológicas Instituto Politécnico Nacional.