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K-State Today

September 19, 2016

Division of Biology researchers awarded U.S. Department of Education Grant

Submitted by Sarah Hancock

A team from the Division of Biology has been awarded a $443,213 grant from the U.S. Department of Education Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program, or GAANN. The grant will provide fellowships to support interdisciplinary training for graduate students.

This is the second program grant awarded to Loretta Johnson, Michael Herman, Anthony Joern and Brett Sandercock, all professors of biology. Their proposal title, "Integrative Graduate Training for New Frontiers in Ecology, Evolution, and Genomics," indicates both their different specialties and the increasingly complex nature of the problems researchers are trying to solve.

"21st century biology challenges, such as climate change and food security, are complex and require different disciplines working together," Johnson said.

"We are positioned to give students training in new technologies such as bioinformatics and genomics and handling large data sets," she said. "For example, with long-standing questions like how forage grasses cope with drought, we can understand the genetic basis for adaptation to climate." 

The Division of Biology's diversity of disciplines and history of interdisciplinary collaboration makes it an ideal recipient of the program's funds. The Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research project funded by the National Science Foundation, for example, works at the interface of ecology, evolution, conservation and other areas.

Another collaborative effort, the Ecological Genomics Institute, explores how organisms react to environments with short-term ecological and long-term evolutionary responses along with the genetic underpinnings of such responses. The high level of collaboration both in the department and with other areas such as agronomy, plant pathology and computer science is excellent training for students.

"The intention is to train students for a variety of careers, to give them a skill set to compete in a variety of teaching and research disciplines or for industry jobs as well," Sandercock said.

Training for the program's students will support learning and research at the interface of different fields of biology and will emphasize analysis of large datasets and communication skills as well as fundamental research in ecology and evolutionary biology.

"That's the legacy of the land-grant institution: the mix of basic and applied research and using available tools to tackle problems," Sandercock said.

Program fellows from the 2009–2014 grant tackled problems of interest to Kansans such as the expansion of woody vegetation in rangelands, disease outbreaks in small mammal populations, or how insects respond to temperature change. One former fellow is now working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a postdoctoral researcher, four others have gone on to win nationally competitive postdoctoral positions, and one is now a K-State faculty member.

A major benefit of the program is helping K-State recruit the top graduate students. The fellowship support is a "real attraction" to come here, Johnson said.

"Students are attracted to interdisciplinary science. Science is becoming so much more interdisciplinary and collaborative, and students are attracted to our program because they need those skills to compete in the workforce," she said.

Carol Shanklin, dean of the Graduate School, is pleased with the opportunities the program's award offers to K-State graduate students.

"The GAANN program will allow K-State researchers to recruit outstanding doctoral students and advance interdisciplinary research while addressing complex environmental and societal problems. The program will provide doctoral students with essential knowledge and skills that will enhance their competitiveness for diverse careers," Shanklin said.

"The Graduate School looks forward to collaborating with the GAANN leadership team in their recruitment initiatives and contributing to the professional development opportunities for the participants," she said.

The Division of Biology is in the College of Arts & Sciences.