Biology Professor Receives NSF CAREER Award to Study Diatoms
Andrew Alverson, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation for his work on the evolution of diatoms, a group of microscopic algae that originated in the ocean.
Alverson's research will focus on identifying the adaptations that allowed some diatoms to successfully colonize and diversify in fresh waters - a hostile habitat to marine colonists. The marine-freshwater divide is one of the strongest environmental barriers to the distribution of microbes of all kinds.
With an estimated 100,000 species, diatoms are one most diverse groups of microalgae. They are small enough that dozens could fit on the head of a pin and are found almost anywhere there is water and sunlight. The fact that they originated in saltwater and have repeatedly adapted to freshwater creates a unique opportunity to study how organisms adapt to and thrive in new environments.
CAREER awards are among the most prestigious offered by the NSF. They provide support for five consecutive years and are given to junior faculty who display excellence in leadership, research, and teaching. They are granted once a year and only given to individuals, not research teams. Alverson's total award is $1.11 million.
CAREER awards include a creative program of educational outreach. Because diatoms are both ubiquitous — they exist in every body of water on earth — small, and easy to collect, they are amenable to citizen science projects. Alverson will invite school and community groups from across the U.S. to send water samples from their favorite local bodies, and Alverson and his lab members will help these groups identify and catalog the diatoms from these sites. A project website will allow citizen scientists to better understand the ecology of their local water bodies. These samples will, in turn, provide Alverson's group with potentially valuable samples for his research.
"I feel very fortunate to have received this award. The project is one that I've been thinking about since I was a graduate student, so this has been a long time in the making," he said. The award will support a post-doc and several graduate and undergraduate researchers.
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