Shuhai Xiao, professor of geobiology in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, received the university's 2010 Alumni Award for Excellence in Research.
Sponsored by the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, the Alumni Award for Excellence in Research is presented annually to as many as two Virginia Tech faculty members who have made outstanding research contributions. Alumni, students, faculty, and staff may nominate candidates. Each recipient is awarded $2,000.
Xiao has devoted much of his career to researching life in the Precambrian eon -- studying the co-evolution of environments and life in early Earth history using paleobiological, geological, and geochemical data. In 1998, Xiao and his colleagues discovered thousands of 600-million-year-old embryo microfossils in the Doushantuo Formation, a fossil site near Weng'an, South China. In 2000, Xiao's team reported the discovery of a tubular coral-like animal that might be, for lack of a better word, a parent.
These discoveries confirmed that animals evolved more than half a billion years old, corals were the closest relatives to living animals. The exceptionally well-preserved fossils opened up even more avenues of exploration with fascinating questions, such as how did these early animals feed, and how did they develop from a single cell? And what is special about calcium phosphate that the fossils were preserved in such great detail?
By using high-powered imaging equipment, researchers observed cells that were incomprehensibly minute at 1 micrometer. They surmised that these so-called nanocrystals started to nucleate and grow on the cell membrane before it degraded. A major part of Xiao’s research over the past decade has been to determine under what conditions the crystals grew and replicated cells before they degraded.
More recently, in 2008 Xiao and Michal Kowalewski, professor of geobiology at Virginia Tech, and their students discovered evidence in the fossil record of an explosive evolutionary event that occurred about 33 million years earlier than the Cambrian Explosion, a seemingly rapid evolutionary event that occurred 542 million years ago.
Xiao's research has also taken him into the area of geochemistry. With colleagues in China and the United States and his students, he has worked to answer a number of paleoclimatic and geochemical questions, such as how many glaciations there were during the Cryogenian Period between 750 and 600 million years ago, determining how much carbon dioxide there was warming our planet 1.5 billion years ago and how much oxygen was in the ocean water during these primitive ages.
Xiao received a bachelor's and master's degree from Peking University in China and a master's degree and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He studied under several internationally known geoscientists while working on his Ph.D. at Harvard. He earned his doctorate in 1998 and joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2003 as an assistant professor. He was made full professor in 2008. Xiao's research has been funded by multiple agencies including the National Science Foundation, NASA, American Chemical Society, and National Geographic Society. Since 2000, he has been awarded more than $3 million research grants. His research has been featured in prestigious scientific journals, such as Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He was the 2006 recipient of the Charles Schuchert Award presented by the Paleontological Society, and recently he has received a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
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