Inside Iowa State

Inside Archives

Submit news

Send news for Inside to, or call (515) 294-7065. See publication dates, deadlines.

About Inside

Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Aug. 25, 2006

Researcher uses dean title to help his peers

by Samantha Beres

When David Oliver was asked 'how many jobs do you have?' he laughed for a second. Then he said, "Well, I only have two. I do dean stuff and research. That's all."

And despite his appointment as associate dean of research in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Oliver makes time to keep up with his research: the biochemistry of plants.

David Oliver

David Oliver is running several experiments in the Bessey Hall Greenhouse. Here, he stands over plants that have been genetically modified to have altered oil synthesis. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Dean's duties

Oliver came to Iowa State as chair of the botany department in 1996. When there was a major reorganization of biological sciences and botany became part of two other departments, he joked that he was reorganized out of the position and able to go back to being a full-time research scientist.

But he was scooped up somewhat immediately to be associate dean of research for LAS.

"I felt quite clearly that if you're going to have someone in charge of research for the college, that individual needs to be a poster child for doing good research and he fit that bill," said Michael Whiteford, dean of LAS.

Whiteford adds, that on a personal note, he appreciates Oliver's positive outlook on life. He says he even hears whistling coming out of Oliver's office.

Oliver's job as associate dean of research is to do whatever is necessary to encourage research within LAS. Much of his time is spent on start-up packages for new faculty to assure they have the funding and equipment needed to start research as soon as possible after arriving at Iowa State.

His associate dean position, he said, is one of duty.

"Once you've reached a point where you've accomplished things, it is your service to your fellow folks," he said. "If you have the ability to do it, it's your job to do it. In my mind, that's just the way it is."

Plants to clean up environment

One research area of Oliver's looks at how plants adjust to stressful environments by switching on genes to make new chemicals.

"Plants are huge chemical factories," Oliver said. "Plants never figured out how to move. If the sun is too bright, or it's too cold, animals simply move. But plants have to respond chemically to deal with a bad environment."

One environment Oliver is testing on plants is cadmium in soils.

Cadmium is a toxic metal found only as a result of human activity, much of it from mining. There's no acceptable commercial way to clean it up, but his research may someday lead to plants cleaning up naturally.

Oliver says he "got hooked" on this "very strange chemistry" of how plants interact with metals while at the University of Idaho, where he was on faculty from 1979 to 1996. The world's largest silver mines are in Northern Idaho, along with thousands of acres of contaminated land from mining activities.

He worked with a team to help mining engineers figure out how to use biological organisms to help mine and clean up some of the mess. They looked at bacteria that breaks down rock to release metals.

"You don't think of plants and other biological organisms as being really important in metal cycles. You think of plants in terms of producing carbon-related things... proteins, carbohydrates and lipids," Oliver said.

Oliver's lab uses Arabidopsis, a test plant, to study how it removes cadmium from the soil.

"It's an accident of nature," Oliver said. "Concentrations of cadmium that would be very toxic to us, the plants largely ignore because they've got this mechanism that allows them to take it out of the soil, bind it to a specific chemical and hide it away."

One problem they discovered was that most of the cadmium collects in the roots of the plant. So, they took the gene responsible for making the chemical that binds to cadmium and directed it to express itself in the leaves rather than the roots, making the removal of cadmium as easy as harvesting the leaves.

At the lab

The administrative job has Oliver wearing a suit most of the time, so he keeps a change of clothes at the lab, just in case he might need to fix a piece of equipment or get his hands dirty.

Oliver grew up on a family farm in upstate New York and said, "If you're raised on a farm, you jump in and fix things."

The cadmium research is just one project going on in Oliver's lab. He's exploring other mechanisms in plants, such as how plants make fatty acids.

Research assistant Ming Lin said Oliver will stop in a few times a day, even if just for 10 or 15 minutes to discuss ideas or problems with the research.

"He's very interested in the science," Lin said. "I think that science is not just his career, it's also his hobby."

If he's not actually in the lab, he works on the research the same way he helps others as associate dean -- getting resources together and participating on the idea level.

Oliver said this, too, is part of being senior faculty.

"Instead of just the discoveries you make yourself, you get to see the discoveries your team is making and that's exciting," he said.

Oliver's timeline

In 2003: Appointed associate dean for research in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

1996 to present: faculty at Iowa State

1979-96: faculty at University of Idaho (1987-88 associate director, Institute for Molecular and Agricultural Genetic Engineering)

1975-79: agricultural scientist, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, New Haven, Conn.

2000-01: visiting professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia

1988-89: visiting professor CERN, Grenoble, France

1975: Ph.D. Cornell University

1973: M.S. SUNY, Syracuse

1971: B.S. SUNY, Syracuse


A researcher at heart, David Oliver spends his time as associate dean helping new faculty find funding and resources for their own research projects.


"Plants are huge chemical factories. Plants never figured out how to move. If the sun is too bright, or it's too cold, animals simply move. But plants have to respond chemically to deal with a bad environment."

David Oliver