Dr. Zhiming Liu
Dr. Zhiming Liu

Dr. Zhiming Liu, professor of molecular biology at Eastern New Mexico University and newly-elected president of the New Mexico Academy of Science, was recently interviewed by ENMU's Dr. Michael Shaughnessy, professor of special education, for the Education News.

1) Professor Liu- I understand that you have just been elected the President of the New Mexico Academy of Science (NMAS) – How did this come about?

On December 12, 2019, the New Mexico Academy of Science Board of Directors held a regular meeting to elect new officers in Albuquerque.  On January 4, 2020, at the Board meeting it was announced that I was the new president, serving the term from January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020.

2) Please tell us a bit about the New Mexico Academy of Science.

NMAS is a statewide organization founded over a century ago. It has been supported by various funds from private foundations, endowments, grants and memberships. It has been very active in promoting science education and scientific research across the state. It is affiliated with the National Association of the Academies of Science (NAAS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The vision of NMAS is to be the premier advocate and resource for science and science education within the State of New Mexico. To achieve this, NMAS serves the state and its communities by publishing science and science education materials, recognizing scientists and science educators, encouraging scientific collaborations, increasing public awareness of the role of science in human welfare, providing advice on matters related to science and science education and serving as the representative of the scientific community to the New Mexico State Government.

3) Please tell us a bit about your daily activity with NMAS. What goals do you have for the organization?

The NMAS Board of Directors consists of six elected officers (president, president-elect, vice president, secretary, treasurer and past-president) and nine committee directors appointed by the president. Since all the Board members are active, this means I receive many emails or phone calls from them. I also keep the close communication with the secretary to deal with the Academy's business. 

Sometimes it takes quite a bit time to write long emails, I simply make phone calls to the secretary. The Board meetings are usually held in Albuquerque; this means I need to travel often from Portales to Albuquerque. Besides the NMAS responsibilities I am still a full-time tenured full professor in the Department of Biology at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU), Portales.

During my tenure as the NMAS president, I will not only keep the current programs running such as science fairs, annual symposium, science journal and national youth science camp, but also try to create new programs, for example, the Young Investigator Awards. 

I would like to allocate some of the existing funds to support outstanding young researchers from New Mexico's high schools and universities. The young investigators include high school students, college undergraduate and graduate students. Certainly, I will try to enhance some other existing programs such as visiting scientist lecture series to attract more audience.

4) What items are usually on your meeting agenda?

The NMAS has regular Board meetings to keep monitoring the progress of its programs. Meetings are usually long and items on the agenda are very diversified. As a state-wide organization, our programs have a state-wide impact. What I can mention here are just a few examples. Along with NM EPSCoR (New Mexico Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), we organize an annual research symposium which is held in November in Albuquerque. Each year we solicit nominations from schools around the state for science teachers who have done excellent job in teaching science. We evaluate the nominations and select some of them for the Outstanding Science Teacher Awards. We select New Mexico high school seniors interested in scientific research and support them in participating an all-expenses-paid, month-long stay at the prestigious National Youth Science Camp each summer.

5) What scientific project is going on in your laboratory?

One of the interesting research projects in my laboratory is the development of a new method for mass production of jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) saplings. Jujubes have been identified by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture as an important crop that can be planted extensively across the state of New Mexico and have great potential in the southwestern United States. The jujube trees are drought-tolerant, grow fast in various types of soils and bear abundant nutritious fruits. 

Though consumption of the fruits is widespread in East-Asian countries, the jujube is relatively unknown to North America. The climate in which jujube flourishes in Asia is very similar to the climate of New Mexico; therefore, New Mexico is an excellent location to plant jujube. Late spring cold-fronts in New Mexico often damage flowers, block pollination and cause heavy losses to fruit growers. 

Jujube leafs out four to six weeks later than most fruit trees (e.g., peach), therefore, the spring frosts do not affect jujube here. Recently, interest in jujubes from consumers and growers is surging in the United States. But, the jujube fruits and related products are mostly imported from China.

The major challenge to develop a jujube industry in New Mexico is very limited availability of saplings.  In our laboratory, graduate and undergraduate students have performed experiments to induce rooting of tender branches from mature jujube trees and intend to produce a large number of young saplings. 

A Portales farmer has offered us a 78-acre land free of rental fee and free of water-usage to establish a research base. I am confident that we will be able to mass produce young jujube trees available to the New Mexico growers in the near future. It is expected that the results from our research is of great significance to offer jobs to local residents and boost our state's economy.

6) Please tell us a bit about your education and career history. Before serving as the president of the New Mexico Academy of Science, did you have other administrative experience?

I am currently a tenured full professor in the Department of Biology at Eastern New Mexico University. I have served as an assistant and associate professor since 1998. I received a BA in 1982 from Shanghai Ocean University, an MS in 1990 from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in 1994 from Texas Tech University. Over the past two decades at ENMU, I have sponsored a large number of post-secondary students, graduate students, undergraduate students and postdoctoral fellows in research projects, with nine of my students receiving awards for excellence in research. 

I have also been very active in teaching courses such as Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Biotechnology, Endocrinology, Developmental Biology, Undergraduate Seminar and Assessment. I have served as a faculty senator, graduate coordinator for the Department of Biology and chaired several committees for the University and community. 

Additionally, I have served as secretary, president-elect and president (two terms) of the ENMU Chapter of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, when the Chapter received two prestigious awards for the outstanding performance from the national Sigma Xi headquarters.