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Stern Scholarship a Game Changer for 2018 Recipient

Thursday, August 24, 2023
filed under: News

Brian Smart
Phomopsis stem Brian Smart pinches himself every day when he goes to work, just to make sure this dream job is actually real life.
        Smart is a computational biologist at NDSU in the Plant Sciences department. He works largely under Dr. Brent Hulke of the Sunflower and Plant Biology Unit with USDA-ARS in Fargo, in collaboration with other researchers in the department at NDSU.  “It’s my dream job!”
        Smart was awarded the Curtis Stern Memorial Scholarship in 2018. The scholarship, established in 2005, was first awarded in 2006.  It’s a lasting tribute to Stern, who was at the forefront of the sunflower industry for decades. He served on the National Sunflower Association Board of Directors and was on the committee that first explored the feasibility of developing mid-oleic sunflower, now known as NuSun®.
        Applicants studying agriculture, with emphasis on those interested in sunflower production, promotion or research, are given preference in the selection process.  But the scholarship isn’t awarded every year. It is only given when the scholarship committee feels there is a qualified applicant.  Smart remains honored to have been given this prestigious scholarship.  In fact, he says looking back, receiving the Stern scholarship changed his career path.
        “It made me feel like I was recognized by the sunflower community, and it made me feel more invested and interested in supporting and working with the people in all parts of the community,” Smart affirms.  “It also definitely helped with costs associated with graduate school and has made me feel proud to be giving back in whatever way I can.”
        Smart earned his bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  He graduated in 2015, and that’s when he became interested in computational biology, using data science to investigate information present in living organisms. Smart then completed a M.S. in plant sciences and a Master’s of software engineering degree at NDSU.  He received the scholarship during that time, and says it’s when he learned to thoroughly enjoy applying his background and interests to support sunflower breeding.
        “Sunflower is a wonderful crop for many reasons, including its beauty, production of healthy and desirable oil, support for native pollinators/beneficial insects/wildlife, deep taproot that improves soil — and its ability to complement other crops in rotation while providing specialty market income for producers,” Smart affirms.  “I am health conscious, passionate about cooking, passionate about the environment, and thoughtful of the producers who feed the world.  I am so grateful and lucky to work on a species that so perfectly complements my personal and professional interests.”
        Smart grew up in La Crosse, Wisc., where he learned to love biology and nature.  Attending high school in the North Shore of the Chicago area led him to love computers.  Smart says a non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma diagnosis in May 2020 has changed his outlook on life, making him more grateful for the little things.
        “I am so pleased to share that I haven’t done any treatment for two years now, and am likely out of the woods due to a generous donation of stem cells from an anonymous person.  As many people know, cancer can be a tough disease to face; and for me, it has helped further expand my gratitude to organizations like the NSA and the wonderful people who are a part of it and the sunflower community,” Smart says.  “The work everyone does — from producer to researcher — is a gift to the world.  I have been proud to be a part of the NSA over the years, and its important role has continued to become more apparent over the last few years since joining sunflower research.
        “The NSA plays a key role in tying the whole sunflower community together across disciplines, state lines and perspectives.  It’s so wonderful to see producers, scientists and stakeholders all be able to communicate and learn from each other so effectively through the NSA and its services and events.
          “The Curtis Stern Memorial Scholarship was more than just financial aid; it made me feel welcomed into the NSA community,” Smart concludes.  “The way people talked to me, listened to me and showed respect to me despite being quite new to all things sunflower was so positive.” — Jody Kerzman
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