Raising the Biology Research Profile

A number of faculty in Biological Sciences have recently secured prestigious awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other funding agencies to study wide-ranging biological phenomena. Below are just some of the most recently funded projects.

Drs. Fierst and Atkinson receive prestigious NSF CAREER awards
The NSF Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, Program is the most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty at NSF. Recipients are recognized as being individuals with the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. With this award, Dr. Fierst and her team will develop new bioinformatic tools to detect horizontal gene transfer using nematode worms as a model system. As part of the award, Dr. Fierst will train undergraduate students in genomics and bioinformatics through an immersive summer research experience at UA. Dr. Atkinson aims to merge the characterization of the functional traits of communities of freshwater mussels, the most globally imperiled faunal group, to critical ecosystem processes such as water filtration and biogeochemical cycling. Further, she plans to 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. This research will advance scientific understanding by investigating how community composition and coincidental trait diversity influences biogeochemical cycling over time and space, while also informing conservation of a highly imperiled group and engaging local communities.

Drs. Cherry & Mortazavi awarded grant to study recovery of restored tidal marshes
Coastal wetland restoration is increasingly utilized to offset wetland loss and degradation and to recover ecosystem services, making it important to evaluate the relative effectiveness and times to functional equivalence of different restoration strategies. Two critically important services provided by coastal wetlands are carbon storage and nitrogen removal. By restoring or creating wetlands, it is possible to recover these functions and services, thereby promoting more resilient coastal watersheds. As part of a new Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant project, Drs. Cherry and Mortazavi will evaluate ecosystem structure and function in habitat restoration and creation projects of different ages. This project will provide important baseline information about restoration activities, while also assessing the structural and functional outcomes of projects that used different approaches for wetland restoration or creation.

Drs. Atkinson, Benstead and Jones awarded EPSCoR grant to study intermittently flowing streams
In Alabama alone, over 40% of our streams and rivers go dry on an annual basis. However, we know very little about what drives this drying, and importantly, how it impacts downstream water quality. Drs. Atkinson, Benstead and Jones have been awarded an NSF EPSCoR RII Track 2 grant to address knowledge gaps on intermittently flowing streams, which control the quantity and quality of water delivered downstream to perennial streams and rivers. This project will create a network of instrumented sites designed to quantify flow intermittency, stream microbiomes, and water quality. Leveraging this network, the team will provide training in collaborative science and interdisciplinary methods through a new ‘On Ramps to Data Science’ program, which will focus on data generated by microbiome sequencing, environmental sensors, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). This infrastructure and training will support a team of 18 investigators, including nine early-career scientists spanning five EPSCoR jurisdictions (AL, ID, KS, MS, OK) and engage a diverse group of students, including undergraduates.

Dr. Gui Becker awarded two grants to study wildlife disease in the face of climate change
Understanding how species cope with disease in an era of global change is of fundamental importance to the field of ecology and to the stability of wildlife populations. Dr. Gui Becker has been awarded an NSF grant to study the impacts of rainfall variability on wildlife disease transmission. The project is global in scope, with field sites in three megadiverse tropical regions: Brazil, Peru, and Cameroon. By advancing disease transmission theory for diverse species assemblages, this research will provide novel insights into community-level impacts of emerging diseases and will ultimately increase our capacity to forecast and respond to disease outbreaks. The project will integrate long-term field surveys and large-scale field experiments to test hypotheses on host movement patterns and infection dynamics under different rainfall scenarios. Dr. Becker was also awarded NSF funding for a project focused on investigating the interaction between deforestation and the microbiome as a process to explain patterns of disease emergence across disturbed landscapes, using amphibians of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest as a model system. Both projects will help educate the public through museum exhibits and school lessons and activities with the goals of teaching the concepts of community-level host-pathogen dynamics and narrowing the K-12 science education gap in one of the most underserved areas in the nation.

Dr. Harris awarded grant to rescue Saint Louis University’s frozen tissue collection
Saint Louis University Museum’s Genetic Resources & Collections (GRC) amassed a collection of approximately 63,000 catalogued and vouched specimens or tissues from over 6,600 species of freshwater and marine fishes from all over the world since its beginning in 1983. On May 25, 2017, Macelwane Hall, home to the Museum and GRC, experienced a fire that caused extensive structural, water, and soot damage throughout the building. Following this incident, Saint Louis University determined that it would no longer support or maintain either the museum or the GRC. Thus, without rescue this extremely valuable collection would otherwise be lost to the global scientific community. The goal of this project is to transfer the GRC to The University of Alabama Ichthyological Collection (UAIC), which is curated by Dr. Phil Harris. Transferring this collection into UAIC will ensure long-term curation of this collection, as well as providing access to the specimens through the UAIC public database. Student research opportunities in molecular systematics, population and conservation genetics, genomics, and transcriptomics will be enhanced due to the taxonomic diversity and global distribution of specimens and tissues contained in this invaluable collection.

Dr. McKain awarded two grants to study plant plant genomics to aid in conservation and combat invasive species
Dr. McKain and collaborators been awarded an NSF Rules of Life grant to investigate patterns of genetic and physiological variation in Joshua trees as they have adapted to the arid environment and high temperatures of the Mojave Desert. One of the goals of this project is to identify contributions of environmental stress and interactions with yucca moths—obligate pollinators of Joshua trees—to assess how abiotic and biotic factors have played a role in the evolution of these iconic desert species. Dr. McKain and colleagues will help in protecting the species by informing conservation biologists of these populations, which will serve as genetic reservoirs for breeding programs. Dr. McKain and colleagues were also awarded an NSF RII Track-2 FEC EPSCoR grant to investigate the genomic trends of how and why introduced species become invasive. By comparing genome sequences of historic herbarium specimens spanning the duration of an invasion, Dr. McKain and colleagues will be able to step back in time and examine the patterns and processes that promote invasion from initial introduction to present day. Dr. McKain’s lab will focus on Johnsongrass, Sorghum halepense. Named for an Alabama landowner, this pest is one of the world’s most noxious weeds being found on all continents and major islands except for Antarctica. The McKain lab will use genomics to understand how being polyploid (having more than two copies of its genome) has impacted the invasive capacity of the species since its introduction into the United States. This work will contribute to the overall goal of the project to understand the genomic factors of invasiveness over the course of an invasion.

Dr. Kocot awarded a grant to digitize the Alabama Museum of Natural History Invertebrate Zoology collection
Dr. Kocot received a grant as part of a large collaborative project focused on documenting marine biodiversity through Digitization of Invertebrate collections (DigIn). Dr. Kocot, a co-PI on the project, and his collaborators at 23 institutions nationwide aim to greatly improve the accessibility of data on marine invertebrate biodiversity by more than doubling digitally-accessible marine invertebrate records from non-federal collections. These records will be enriched with images, DNA sequence data, georeferences, and improved nomenclature. They will be made accessible through diverse resources in both human- and machine-readable formats to promote collections-based biodiversity research. This work will help enhance the Invertebrate Zoology collection and will support digitization of specimens from three Antarctic research expeditions Dr. Kocot’s lab will participate in over the next four years.