Raising the Biology Research Profile

Over the last year, several faculty in Biological Sciences have secured prestigious awards from diverse funding agencies and industry partners to study wide-ranging biological phenomena. Others have received awards in recognition of their outstanding work. Some of these are highlighted here.

Dr. Atkinson receives NSF CAREER award

Research at the interface of community and ecosystem ecology increasingly seeks to understand the functional role animals play in biogeochemical cycles. Despite the fact that freshwater systems harbor incredible diversity and are experiencing more rapid biodiversity losses than any other ecosystem type, the public is largely unaware of the role these diverse ecological communities play in provisioning ecosystem services. This research merges the characterization of the functional traits of species-rich communities of freshwater mussels, the most globally imperiled faunal group, to critical ecosystem processes and will integrate the concepts of biodiversity-ecosystem function relationships gained from the research objectives into the instruction of undergraduate courses, K-12 day camps, and after school programs.

Dr. Cherry’s work studying tidal marsh resilience funded by two awards

Dr. Cherry’s lab has received funding through an Alabama Water Resources Research Institute grant and a NOAA Margaret A. Davidson Fellowship (supporting a Cherry Lab PhD student) to study the interactive effects of nutrient enrichment and wave action on tidal marsh resilience.

Drs. Cherry and Jones awarded NOAA CIROH funding to study nature-based solutions to enhance coastal resilience

Dr. Julia Cherry and Dr. Nate Jones are co-PIs on a grant with colleagues in Engineering and Geography. This NOAA CIROH project will address nature-based solutions to enhance coastal resilience.

Dr. Ciesla funded to develop cellular membrane affinity chromatography kit for drug discovery

A technology transfer proposal by Dr. Lukasz Ciesla, titled “Cellular membrane affinity chromatography kit for drug discovery,” began in July 2021 and runs for two years. This proposal is in collaboration with Regis Technologies and will develop cellular membrane affinity chromatography (CMAC) kits to allow for the identification of compounds present in complex matrices that specifically interact with immobilized transmembrane proteins. The newly developed CMAC kit will speed up the identification of phytochemicals targeting transmembrane proteins. The CMAC kit can easily be applied in drug discovery laboratories to identify novel drug templates that can be further used to treat certain forms of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, chronic pain, diabetes, and many other illnesses. Dr. Ciesla is a candidate for the second phase of this grant program to continue research and development of the potential product for a further two years.

Drs. Chtarbanova, Ciesla and Maitra awarded grant from NIH to study effects of the herb Centella asiatica on neuroinflammatory responses in Drosophila models of acute inflammation and aging

Low-grade chronic inflammation, which accompanies human aging (inflammaging), is thought to contribute to age-dependent decline in biological resilience and constitutes a major risk factor for chronic diseases in the elderly. This two-year NIH project will attempt to decipher the protective mechanistic effects of the hot water extract of Centella asiatica (CAW) formulated by the Botanical Dietary Supplements Research Center at the Oregon Health and Science University on acute and chronic inflammation in the genetically tractable organism Drosophila melanogaster to promote healthy aging.

Dr. Heinrich selected as a Distinguished Teaching Fellow for 2022-2025 by the College of Arts and Sciences

Faculty members with outstanding records of teaching and student learning are selected from nominations made by their department chairs, colleagues, and students. As part of this fellowship, Dr. Kaleb Heinrich will be part of a teaching advisory board, serve as a mentor for other faculty, provide advice on the assessment of teaching, participate in new faculty orientation, and work with the College of Arts and Sciences in other ways to improve its overall teaching mission. The teaching fellows receive stipends for three years to support teaching-related projects.

Dr. Heinrich and colleagues receive NSF grant to improve undergraduate STEM education

This five-year project is titled “Evolving the culture of biology: Promoting graduate teaching assistant professional development to foster inclusion, efficacy, and evidence-based practices.” This project will develop, facilitate, and evaluate a series of regional workshops to enhance Teaching Assistant Teaching Professional Development (TA-TPD) programs.

Dr. Kocot and collaborators receive ALCoE funding to employ microscopic marine invertebrates as indicators of disturbance

In collaboration with Dr. Kelly Dorgan (Dauphin Island Sea Lab) and Dr. Ken Halanych (University of South Carolina Wilmington), Dr. Kocot received Alabama Center of Excellence (ALCoE) funding to develop a framework to use microscopic marine animals (meiofauna) as indicators of disturbance. This work will investigate shallow subtidal sediment habitats off Alabama with applications to the broader Gulf of Mexico. The team will focus on meiofaunal communities around natural gas rigs and determine how rigs affect local sediment structure, how those differences in granulometry influence species diversity, and whether taxa are differentially impacted. Because meiofauna are tiny and often challenging to identify, a workshop will be held in 2023 to bring together world expert taxonomists and students from the region to build capacity in this area and generate DNA ‘barcodes’ from expert-identified specimens to facilitate future environmental DNA (eDNA) research in the region.

Dr. Lozier awarded NSF grant to study evolution of bumble bee coloration

Dr. Jeff Lozier recently received funding from NSF for a project entitled “How many routes to the same phenotype? Genetic changes underlying parallel acquisition of mimetic color patterns across bumble bees,” which will be looking at the evolution of coloration in bumble bees. This research is being done in collaboration with Dr. Heather Hines at Penn State University and Dr. Jon Koch at the USDA in Logan, UT.

Dr. McKain awarded NSF EPSCoR RII to leverage genomic data from herbarium specimens to study plant invasiveness

Dr. Michael McKain recently received funding through an NSF EPSCoR RII Track-2 FEC for a project entitled “Consortium for Plant Invasion Genomics (CPING): Combining Big Data and Plant Collections to Understand Invasiveness.”

Drs. Olson and McKain receive NSF grant to establish a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) site

This three-year award provides an opportunity for ten undergraduate students, primarily from community colleges, HBCUs, and small liberal arts colleges, to come to UA each year for a 10-week intensive, summer research experience. The Re-IMAGiNE Life: Exploring Function through Adaptation site started this past summer, bringing students to Alabama from throughout the country for research experiences and professional development activities, and will continue through the summer of 2024. Read more about the new REU program in the article “Re-IMAGiNE Life: An NSF Funded Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates.”

Dr. Olson awarded an EPA grant to track fecal bacteria in Alabama rivers

This three-year project utilizes microbial source tracking to identify the source(s) of fecal pollution in Alabama watersheds with documented fecal contamination and partners with three Riverkeeper organizations. By determining the source of fecal pollution and mitigating its introduction into the Black Warrior, Cahaba, and Coosa Rivers, human exposure to fecal pollution will be reduced and water quality improved.

Drs. Shogren and Atkinson receive NSF grant to study the influence of connectivity on stream communities

Abiotic factors – such as climate, geomorphology, hydrology – act as “filters” that control which species can persist in a given ecosystem. How these abiotic factors interact to determine community composition is the major focus of the project “Scaling climate, connectivity, and communities in streams.” This project will develop understanding of the effects of stream drying benthic macroinvertebrate community structure, food web dynamics, and genetic connectivity across a continental gradient. This large collaborative project includes researchers from The University of Alabama, Northern Arizona University, University of Arizona, Penn State, Virginia Tech, and University of California Berkeley, and sites span across a climatic gradient from the Southeastern coastal plain to the Sierras.