Two CU-Boulder faculty win National Science Foundation CAREER Awards

By Staff

Assistant professors Pieter Johnson and Rebecca Safran, both from the ecology and evolutionary biology department at the University of Colorado Boulder, have received prestigious National Science Foundation Early Career Development, or CAREER, awards.

The awards are made to outstanding faculty in the early stages of their careers who effectively integrate innovative research and educational outreach.

Johnson was awarded $700,000 over five years to study how ecological diversity in natural communities can affect disease risk for amphibians, which are the most threatened class of vertebrates worldwide.  One significant reason for the decline of amphibians is their vulnerability to infections by parasitic flatworms called trematodes, which burrow into tadpoles and larval salamanders and cause limb malformations in adults, increasing mortality rates.

Johnson hopes to identify the factors that control disease in natural ecosystems and better understand the role of parasites in ecosystem processes. Adult amphibians that have been affected by trematodes often eaten by predatory birds such as herons, which pass eggs of the trematodes back into the aquatic environment where they hatch and enter snails to repeat the cycle.

Johnson will be collaborating with National Geographic to enhance a “Citizen Science” program that involves members of the public reporting on deformed amphibians they encounter. In addition, he will work with several other organizations to develop a documentary to promote awareness of the issue, and will team up with a biology textbook publisher to design an educational module that is expected to reach tens of thousands of students annually in classrooms and through online learning programs.

Safran was awarded $850,000 over five years to study genetic differences in barn swallow populations to gain a greater understanding of how new species are formed. The goal of the effort is to measure the genetic variation and gene flow related to the adaptive evolutionary changes within swallow populations -- including different combinations of sexual signaling traits -- as well as changes because of geographic isolation among different populations.

Safran and her team will use cutting-edge molecular approaches using genomics and stable isotope analysis in their research efforts. The team hopes to understand how migratory behavior, climate change, sexual selection and geographic distance between swallow populations relate to genetic divergence and speciation, which is the evolutionary process by which new species are created. The study will allow “evolution in action” to be carefully documented and studied, Safran said.

The research effort will include international collaborators from 35 Northern Hemisphere countries and will provide training for students at various levels of education and involve extensive interdisciplinary research. Her grant also includes a number of public outreach efforts including a “Citizen Science” program and a project in collaboration with EcoArts Connections of Boulder in which people are encouraged to ride Boulder County buses and to chart and report on various bird species seen from the vehicles.