September 08, 2016

NSF grant funds biodiversity scholarship program

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A grant from the federal government will help natural history and biology students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale finish their educations. 

SIU, in cooperation with two other universities, will receive more than $1.7 million from the National Science Foundation’s S-STEM program for the Upper Delta Region Biodiversity Scholarship Program. The upper delta region refers to the Mississippi River drainage basin, including Southern Illinois, southeast Missouri, western Kentucky, northeastern Arkansas and western Tennessee. S-STEM refers to “scholarships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” 

The five-year effort, which is funded by a nearly $5 million grant in total, is aimed not only at funding research, but also at helping two consecutive cohorts of undergraduate and graduate students pursue their degrees, said Kurt Neubig, assistant professor of plant biology at SIU. 

“We hope to increase retention of majors in the biological sciences, especially from underrepresented groups and also create a collaborative learning environment across the three universities that are participating,” Neubig said. Other goals include creating directed educational opportunities for participating students, engaging them in legitimate research experiences and increasing the quality of biodiversity science. 

SIU researchers Jessica Crowe, associate professor of sociology; Sedonia Sipes, associate professor of plant biology; Frank Anderson, associate professor of zoology; and F. Agustin Jimenez, associate professor of zoology, also will work on the project. 

Arkansas State University and Murray State University will coordinate with SIU to develop the scholarship program. About 120 students, about two-thirds of them undergraduates and one-third graduate students, will benefit from the scholarships and mentoring on the three campuses. The main goal of the project is providing economic aid to students in need, Neubig said. 

“Many students never get the opportunity to pursue or finish their undergraduate or graduate career because of financial difficulty,” he said. The grant will provide financial stability for students while they pursue their education and gain research experience in critically important concepts of evolution, biodiversity and organismal identification. 

“Because this is a scholarship program in the sciences, research is a very important component of the learning experience for the students,” Neubig said. “Students will have the opportunity to participate in a huge breadth of study because of the number of participating researchers on the three campuses.   

The project also is geared toward assisting regions with a high relative number of first-generation college students. Researchers will work with other natural resource management professionals from state or natural resource conservation agencies to provide students with real-world experience in field work. 

The geographic region where they will be working is home to rich plant and animal species diversity and communities, including bottomland hardwood forests. Researchers anticipate learning a great deal about plant life and biological diversity and distribution in the area, Neubig said. Field experience and techniques generally will involve using DNA sequence data to address evolutionary patterns among organisms, as well as field studies documenting biodiversity in the upper delta region. 

“Ultimately, the research conducted through the course of this grant will increase our knowledge about biodiversity, their relationships and their interactions and the biological importance of Southern Illinois,” Neubig said.