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Source: Frank Blecha, 785-532-2741, blecha@vet.k-state.edu.
http://www.k-state.edu/media/mediaguide/bios/blechabio.html
Photo available. Contact media@k-state.edu or 785-532-2535.
News release prepared by: Greg Tammen, 785-532-2535, gtammen@k-state.edu

Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010

DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR OF IMMUNOPHYSIOLOGY RECEIVES ONE OF FIELD'S HIGHEST HONORS

MANHATTAN -- Despite making what are arguably some of the biggest advancements in research on the animal immune system, Frank Blecha puts his students' success before his own.

Now his former students have helped Blecha, a Kansas State University distinguished professor of immunophysiology, interim associate dean for research in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and head of the department of anatomy and physiology, earn national recognition for his contributions to veterinary immuniology.

On Dec. 6 in Chicago, Ill., Blecha will be formally recognized by the American Association of Veterinary Immunologists as the 2010 Distinguished Veterinary Immunologist of the Year. His former students nominated him for the honor, one of the highest in the field.

"It's really surprising that he hasn't received this award before now, as, in my mind, he's the most qualified person in his field," said Jishu Shi, associate professor of anatomy and physiology at K-State. "His work was really some of the first in certain areas, and I think he single-handedly increased our understanding of innate immunology in domestic animals."

Shi, a former graduate student of Blecha's, spearheaded the nomination campaign, which consisted of letters of support and a list of Blecha's achievements.

Since beginning his work in veterinary immunology nearly 36 years ago, Blecha has authored 139 refereed journals, 24 book chapters and more than 200 abstracts; contributed to four university patents; raised more than $9 million in funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association, among others; and made more than 100 invited presentations at regional, national and international conferences.

Teaching, and even immunology, weren't areas Blecha originally considered pursuing.

"Besides serving in the Army, the only thing I had ever done was rodeo and school. I wasn't sure I would be accepted into graduate school because my grades weren't all that great," he said. "Instead of buckling down, I spent the last two years of school rodeoing and not going to class."

As luck would have it, Blecha was accepted into grad school, where he became involved in a project on the immune system in animals. This chance study led to him earning a doctorate in the field. Soon after, Blecha, his wife and sons moved to Manhattan, and he began working at K-State in 1981.

Since then he's investigated the capabilities of cytokines and antimicrobial peptides, and has worked with interferons. His greatest work, though, has been that with his students, he said.

Blecha keeps a file with each of his former postdoctoral and graduate students' contact information and career paths. Some have gone on to teach at universities, others are CEOs of their own companies, and one works for the USDA and another for Pfizer Incorporated. They keep in contact and consider Blecha a friend.

That's part of what makes this award so special, Blecha said.

"Only one person from around the world is selected each year. To have been nominated by those students I've worked so closely with, I feel quite humbled by it," he said.

"When I came to K-State I didn't take graduate students right away because in my mind it's a great responsibility. It's basically like having a family," Blecha said. "I wanted to make sure I had things established, had a program going, and knew what I was doing. In looking at where my former students are now, I guess I did OK."

Although his graduate work ended in 1996, Shi still seeks advice from Blecha.

"Dr. Blecha is a friend as much as a mentor. I've turned to him for advice with each new step I take in my career. He's an excellent scientist, and has always been there when his students needed him," Shi said. "When it comes to working with my students, I'm trying to mimic half of what he did for all of us."