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Wergin Named Beltsville Area's Outstanding Senior Research Scientist / February 7, 2001 / News from the USDA Agricultural Research Service

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Wergin Named Beltsville Area's Outstanding Senior Research Scientist

By Hank Becker
February 7, 2001

BELTSVILLE, Md., Feb. 7—Cytologist William P. Wergin has been named an “Area Senior Research Scientist of 2000" by the Agricultural Research Service, chief research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Formerly a scientist with the ARS Nematology Laboratory at Beltsville, Md., Wergin retired from Federal service in December 2000.

“Dr. Wergin is being honored for his international leadership as a truly renaissance scientist for developing innovative scanning electron microscope (SEM) methodologies and adapting them to solving agricultural problems,“ said ARS Administrator Floyd P. Horn.

"His research has had significant impact in several diverse fields of agriculture--studies in food safety, bacteriology, nematology, entomology, post- harvest physiology, seed quality, hydrology, meteorology, physics and glaciology.”

Horn will present plaques to Wergin and 15 other ARS scientists at a 1 p.m. ceremony Feb. 7 at the agency's Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Awardees will also receive cash awards and additional research funding.

Wergin is the senior scientist of the year for ARS' Beltsville Area, which includes laboratories in Maryland and at the U.S. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C. He is renowned internationally for interfacing a low-temperature stage with a field emission scanning electron microscope and then developing coating techniques to facilitate generation of high-resolution images of fresh, frozen biological materials.

Wergin’s state-of-the-art, low-temperature procedure (LT) uses liquid nitrogen that instantly chills specimens to -320 degrees F. This keeps them nonchemically fixed, but freshly frozen while the SEM images can be observed and photographed. The highly magnified, clear photographs possible from these LT-SEM images allow minute details of biological materials to be seen in three dimensions--for the first time ever.

By pairing the LT-SEM with his coating technique, Wergin was first to demonstrate that macromolecules representing protein-lipid complexes could be photographed intact and in incredibly fine detail. Those studies contributed to the commercial development and introduction of a high-resolution cryosystem that is currently marketed by Oxford Scientific Instruments.

Wergin is the world authority on using LT-SEM to visualize snow crystals. By applying the technology to the study of snowflakes and other types of winter precipitation, researchers in diverse fields like hydrology, meteorology, ice physics and glaciology help determine the amount of water present in winter snowpack. Such information ultimately will explain the role of snowpacks in providing water for agriculture and hydroelectrical production, as well as floods and avalanches.

He has adapted this SEM technology to the study of nematodes and mites, magnifying them more than 50,000 times. This allows their very delicate structural details to be observed at different angles, in three dimensions, fully hydrated, and in natural positions on their hosts. The high magnification makes it possible to observe host-parasite interactions in a natural state. Such information allows systematists to form procedures to identify and classify organisms with potential as biological control agents.

During his 30 years with ARS, Wergin has written or co-authored more than 200 articles for peer-reviewed journals and over 150 abstracts, popular articles and book chapters. He has been an invited speaker at many international meetings and has received numerous research grants and awards, as well as several USDA certificates of merit.

Besides his outstanding research, Wergin has been a distinguished leader in mentoring younger and visiting scientists--along with doctoral, post-doctoral, and high school students--in his research unit. Two of the high school students developed science fair projects that earned them partial college scholarships.

He is a member of several professional societies including the Microscopy Society of America and the Society of Nematologists. He serves on the board of directors for the Foundation for Advances in Medicine and Science and is a fellow in the Royal Miscroscopical Society and the Washington Academy of Sciences.

Born in Manitowoc, Wis., Wergin spent his childhood there, graduating from Lincoln High School. He received his B.S. in genetics and Ph.D. in botany from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Adelphi, Md., with his wife Mary (Guse). They have two children, W. Peter Wergin, Jr., of North Potomac, Md., and Anne Baumgartner of Gaithersburg, Md.

Scientific contact: William P. Wergin, ARS Nematology Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-9027, fax (301) 504-8923, werginw@ba.ars.usda.gov.

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