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National Science Foundation Approves $5.48 Million in Grants for Biodiversity Projects Led by A-State Researchers


JONESBORO – Two biological sciences faculty members at Arkansas State University will head up research projects involving three institutions and supported by $5.48 million in funding from the National Science Foundation.

One of the projects represents the largest competitive research award in the institution's history.

Dr. Travis Marsico, associate professor of botany, wrote the successful proposal to support the "Upper Delta Region Biodiversity Scholarship Program" through the National Science Foundation's initiative called S-STEM, which stands for Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Dr. Brook Fluker, assistant professor of aquatic ecology, will lead development of the Arkansas Center for Biodiversity Collections, a proposal funded through NSF's Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR).  The project will unify A-State's eight collections into common spaces, making them much more accessible.

"The need to understand how the diversity of plants and animals evolves as a result of changes to the environment around them is vital to our stewardship of the land for future generations," said Dr. Andy Sustich, associate vice chancellor for research at A-State.  "These projects will provide valuable experiences to our future scientists while developing this understanding."

Acting Chancellor Lynita Cooksey commented, "I am very proud of the work that Dr. Andy Sustich and his team are doing in terms of generating new research opportunities for our faculty and students here at Arkansas State."

The related projects evolved from the Delta Research Consortium of universities and colleges that formed last year through an initiative of the Delta Regional Authority.  This is the first collaborative project to receive funding after the consortium was formed.

"This grant is exactly the type of investment into our region that we were aiming for when forming the Delta Research Consortium," said Chris Masingill, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority.  "The Mississippi River Delta region has some of the most fertile, productive, and bountiful farm land in the world - and we have research institutions and educational infrastructure to match it. By investing in our people, we are literally planting the seeds of our economic future. I thank the National Science Foundation for their partnership and am excited to see what the brilliant people at our universities in the Delta can develop."

Marsico emphasized the significance of the projects, saying "This is an unprecedented opportunity to educate graduate and undergraduate students in this field of study at A-State, making us a leader in our region.  We are now able to take 70 years of collections data and specimens, house them effectively, curate them appropriately, and make them widely available digitally to the scientific research community.  The type of large-scale research that will result is only possible with accessible and digitized specimen data."

The CSBR and S-STEM projects also will work together to provide biodiversity outreach and educational opportunities to K-12 students and the broader community, developing appreciation for the natural history and biodiversity of their home region.

Upper Delta Region Biodiversity Scholarships

A total of 120 students (44 in graduate-level study and 76 in undergraduate study) will be mentored and supported during the five-year term of the grant.  Scholarships to study biodiversity science and natural history collections management will be distributed between A-State, Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, and Murray State University in Kentucky. 

The collaborative project, for which Marsico will serve as principal investigator (PI), has a total budget of $4,998,672, of which $1,064,170 is designated through a sub-award to Murray State.  SIUC's portion of the grant is $1,726,969.

The three institutions will work cooperatively to recruit and retain students in STEM fields.

The project was designed to help serve a region with a high proportion of first-generation college students.  In addition to campus studies, faculty will partner with natural resource management professionals from state natural heritage or natural resource conservation agencies to provide hands-on, field-based workshops.

Arkansas Center for Biodiversity Collections

Fluker said his project includes new museum-quality shelving, storage cabinets and a database system that will provide improved access for students and researchers.  His grant is for $478,094 over a three-year period.  He also is a co-PI on Marsico's project.

The American Museum of Natural History says the term biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems, and the ecological and evolutionary processes that sustain it.

Biodiversity collections at A-State include mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian, fish, mussel, aquatic macroinvertebrate, insect, and plant specimens.  These individual collections will be unified under the ACBC.

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Learn more about the two related projects by clicking here.