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National Science Foundation funds five research projects led by Vassar College professors and their colleagues.

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY—This fall the National Science Foundation has awarded $2.7 million to five Vassar College faculty members and their colleagues at other institutions to fund research projects, ranging from the examination of the chemical effects of the recent Gulf oil spill to climate change on Pacific coral reefs and in a northeastern U.S. forest. 

Vassar professors Lynn Christenson (biology), Erica Crespi (biology), Alison Spodek Keimowitz (chemistry), Jodi Schwarz (biology), and Marc Smith (computer science) have been awarded a total $313,400 for their work. These five projects will focus on, respectively, the effects of climate change in the Northeast; the relationship between the environment and stress in wild populations; the effects of the Gulf oil spill on toxic metals and bacteria; the biology of Pacific corals and effects of climate change on them; and algorithms for detecting whether or not searches for large-scale evolutionary trees converge. 

In addition to these research grants, this fall the National Science Foundation also awarded Vassar College $1.6 million to advance the college’s scientific infrastructure and $1.2 million to train and support math and science teachers in high need school districts. 

Since 2005, Vassar College science faculty members have secured $10.5 million in research grants.     

About the NSF-funded projects 

Lynn Christenson, assistant professor of biology at Vassar College, and her colleagues — Charles Driscoll (Syracuse University), Timothy Fahey (Cornell University), Melanie Fisk (Miami University), Peter Groffman (Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies), Myron Mitchell (SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry), David Sleeper (Hubbard Brook Research Foundation), Pamela Templer (Boston University) — will collaborate on the research project, “Winter Climate Change in a Northern Hardwood Forest.” 

  • “In the northeastern U.S., climate is changing more rapidly in winter than in summer. The impacts of winter climate change on ecosystems are greatly complicated by effects on snow depth and soil freezing. Snow is important as an insulator of the soil, and many northern hardwood forest soils normally remain unfrozen during the winter. A lack of snow can result in soil freezing, which is a significant disturbance to forest ecosystems, potentially killing tree roots and microorganisms and disrupting nutrient cycling processes leading to losses of nutrients to water and air. In this project investigators will use a landscape-scale approach to evaluate three aspects of the effects of changes in snow depth on soil freezing and the cycling of carbon and nitrogen in the northern hardwood forest at the Hubbard Brook Long Term Ecological Research site (HBR) in New Hampshire.

Research by Erica Crespi, assistant professor of biology, and her colleague Leslie Rissler (University of Alabama Tuscaloosa) will explore “The Geography of Stress in the Woodfrog: Using Distributional Models to Predict the Relationship Between Population Health and Environmental Suitability.” 

  • “This project aims to ground-truth a new strategy to assess population health and sub-lethal environmental stress on wild populations of amphibians. The research focuses on the wood frog as a model species because amphibians are extremely sensitive to environmental change and they are the most threatened group of vertebrates on earth. The ultimate goal of this project is to develop a toolkit that combines landscape-level measures of environmental, genetic, and physiological stress for conservation biologists to use when predicting the geography of population health and make better predictions about whether populations will persist given the threats of climate change or habitat destruction. This research will also enhance the education of both undergraduate and graduate students and train them to be integrative biologists who can use powerful bioinformatics databases to design studies and ask important conservation questions.”

Alison Spodek Keimowitz, assistant professor of chemistry, and her colleagues Ming-Kuo Lee and James Saunders from Alabama’s Auburn University will work on the collaborative research project,“Assessing the Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill on Mobility of Toxic Metals and Microbial Activities in Alabama Coastal Wetlands.” 

  • “The millions of barrels of crude oil released following the explosion of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010 has a range of deleterious effects on the aquatic and coastal ecosystems of the Gulf. One such effect may include alteration of biogeochemical cycling of heavy metals in the coastal wetlands. These wetlands are particularly susceptible to heavy metal contamination and may therefore be especially vulnerable to altered heavy metal cycling as a result of the oil spill. This project will examine solids and pore waters from sediment cores in Weeks Bay, Alabama, for changes in microbial activity, arsenic concentration and speciation, and mercury concentration and speciation over the next eight to twelve months. Because ocean oil spills are a common environmental problem worldwide, the data gathered in the research should benefit many other affected regions.”

Jodi Schwarz, assistant professor of biology, will work on the international research project “Building Networks and Study Systems to Advance Research on the Biology of Pacific Corals” led by Virginia Weis of Oregon State University, with Patrick Chappel (Oregon State University) and Ruth Gates and Judith D. Lemus from the University of Hawaii. These five scientists will collaborate with their colleagues from Taiwan and China to understand coral reproduction and resilience in the face of climate change issues. Schwarz will focus on using bioinformatics approaches to identify coral reproductive and endocrine genes. She and a Vassar student working on the project, Joseph Gaspare Azofeifa ’12, will conduct research in Tawain this spring and then, next fall, in China with the rest of the team.

  • “The award provides funding to develop an international and multidisciplinary network of researchers to study the biology of coral reefs and their resilience relative to global climate change. This study will provide better understanding of the vulnerability of coral reefs to changing environments and help develop measures for their protection. The outcomes of this project, including the testing of research hypotheses and sharing of views, promise to lead to transformative results, both in biology and ecology. In a broader sense, better understanding of reef resilience and local ecological phenomena should lead to methods for remediation and control of reef destruction, a serious environmental problem. The establishment of an East Asia Coral Reef Alliance could be instrumental in saving critical reef populations.”

Marc Smith, assistant professor of computer science, and Tiffani Williams (Texas A&M University) will collaborate on the project "Novel Techniques for Understanding Convergence in Large Scale Markov Chain Monte Carlo Phylogenetic Analyses." 

  • “Inferring the true evolutionary history for a group of organisms, or taxa, is a difficult problem. For a given set of taxa, there is an exponential number of ways to depict their family tree. Hence, an exhaustive exploration of all possible trees is infeasible. As a result, the most popular techniques sample tree space in order to obtain an estimate of the true evolutionary tree. The challenge is to know whether an estimate of an evolutionary tree for a group of taxa has converged (succeeded), because non-convergence leads to inaccurate estimation of the true evolutionary tree. Our team will develop a suite of convergence detection algorithms for large-scale phylogenetic analyses, based on the evolutionary relationships shared by each tree, rather than relying solely on individual tree scores. (The problem with tree scores is two trees might have the same or similar scores and yet be very different trees!) From an educational perspective, our students in both biology and computer science will have an opportunity to design and implement algorithms and run computational experiments on large data sets that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Tools and software developed will be made publicly available.”

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, December 1, 2010