OC professor designated ‘expert’ in his field

An Odessa College professor who worked on an article about black spots on tomatoes had his work cited so many times that he’s been invited to serve on a National Science Foundation panel on getting more minorities into STEM.

James J. Bolton, associate professor II/chair of the Science Department, said the panel is April 26 and April 27 in Washington, D.C. Bolton said it was a team of people who worked on the article.

He said he is nervously excited about participating and he anticipates rubbing elbows with authors of textbooks that got him through biology.

“Sitting next to them, that’s a huge honor,” Bolton said.

The tomato article, which has many co-authors, has been cited 574 times, he said.

Each time a new scientific article is published and someone else’s work is cited it is recorded. Bolton said he didn’t know this was done on a consistent basis.

“Tomatoes tend to develop a black spot and no one wants a black spot on a red tomato. Although it’s of no harm to humans, economically the tomato industry was suffering” because people didn’t want to eat tomatoes with black spots, Bolton said.

“We did some molecular biology to get rid of that black spot to find out how it developed and to get rid of it,” Bolton said.

Knockout technology, which can knock out what a gene produces, was used to eliminate the black spots, he said.

Published in 2012 in the Journal of Bacteriology, Bolton said it was noticed by the U.S. government in 2015.

“It did things I didn’t know the article would do. It was just a fun research article,” he said.

Bolton said a lot of the things that attack plants don’t attack people. Pseudomonas syringae went after the tomato.

“The medical industry started citing this paper because people who have bed sores as it relates to burns, theirs is called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. …,” Bolton said.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa can kill people, he added. He said the medical industry thought they could use knockout technology to stop people from dying of this particular infection.

But the average amount of time that it takes for something like this to hit mainstream America is 12 years. Probably another 10 years to go before they’ll have some answers for the medical industry.

Having his research noticed in this way makes Bolton want to do more to help people.

Bolton added that tomatoes are important to the economy because lots of people work in the industry. Tomatoes are also a source of a protein called lycopene, which he said reduces the incidence of prostate cancer in men.

The National Science Foundation, the premier funding agency for research, sent him an email noting the 500-plus citations. Two weeks later, Bolton said the NSF said based on the citations they considered him an expert in his field.

“That’s one of the highest honors you can get as a researcher,” Bolton said.

The National Science Foundation also noted that Bolton is with a Hispanic Serving Institution and NSF wanted someone like him who is a minority to be able to connect with other minorities and get them involved in the sciences.

“I thought it was a huge honor. I was only one of 12 to be selected to serve as a panelist to talk about how to get minorities in STEM education,” Bolton said. STEM stands for science, technology, education and math.

Bolton often gives presentations to get students interested in STEM.

“The younger I get them, the more I can affect them. … I get a reasonable number of speaking engagements. The ones I take first are the third graders and fifth graders,” he said.

It was around that age that Bolton said he got interested in the sciences.

“After third and fifth grade, it’s more difficult to get them,” Bolton said.

Bolton said he will be one of the people that reviews proposals and, based on his expertise, determine whether the research should move forward and whether the government should fund the research.

“It’s challenging. These (proposals) are coming from Stanford and MIT and they have little old me sitting up there and saying whether it’s good or not. It kind of blows my mind,” Bolton said.

Bolton earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Wiley College; his master’s degree in genetics from the University of Alabama; and his PhD in molecular biology and genetics from Alabama A&M University.

When he finished his PhD, Bolton said he was called to Cornell University to work in a criminal investigation laboratory that doesn’t exist on paper. He started as a researcher and then became a forensic scientist.

“That’s how I became a forensic scientist,” Bolton said.

The lab he was with tested hair and blood samples from Osama bin Laden to determine it was him who was killed in a raid by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan. With high-profile cases like this, Bolton said the scientists aren’t told who they’re trying to identify.

He was with the lab from 2004 through 2013.

“It’s a lot of stress,” he said. “It’s a lot of reward, but a lot of stress.”

He is now working on a book called “Making it Through Your Difficult Moments” with co-author Dr. Shamanique Bodie.

“OC is extremely fortunate to have a scientist and educator of his caliber on the faculty. His expertise and passion for his field have a great impact not only on the department which he chairs, but also the lives of the students he serves,” Dean of Arts and Sciences Eric Yeager said.

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