Five UO researchers recognized with prestigious NSF awards

Five UO faculty members have received one of the most highly competitive grants offered by the National Science Foundation, the prestigious Career Awards.

Recipients are historian Melissa Graboyes, biophysicist Michael Harms and earth scientists Leif Karlstrom, Amanda Thomas and James Watkins.

NSF Career Awards fund research and education activities for five consecutive years. The foundation grants the awards once a year and they are among the most sought-after grants awarded by the agency.

An assistant professor the Clark Honors College who examines history and ethics of global health initiatives, Graboyes received a Career Award to pursue her research project “A Case Study of Malaria Elimination Efforts with Relation to Vernacular Knowledge, Expertise and Ethics.”

Graboyes’ project will examine the attempts to eliminate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa and on the island of Zanzibar over the past century. She will conduct archival, ethnographic and oral research in Africa, Europe and the U.S.

Her findings will contribute to global health discussions about malaria elimination attempts in Africa and will share information about historical case studies and often-overlooked ethical questions. She will integrate African understanding of malaria and its elimination — vernacular knowledge — into larger conversations of global health agencies, African studies and science and technology studies literature.

“The award is exciting for how it allows me to not only pursue research on an important topic —malaria elimination campaigns — but also for how it allows me to involve Clark Honors College students in every step of the process,” Graboyes said. “These students will learn how to conduct archival research and gain valuable experience for graduate school and future careers.”

Harms, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Institute of Molecular Biology who studies the relationship between the biophysical properties of proteins and their evolution, will use his Career Award to support his research project, “Protein Evolution in High-Dimensional Sequence Space.”

Harms’ project uses biophysical studies to try to predict protein evolution. His lab is doing experiments to figure out how fluorescent proteins in corals evolved their unique colors and using the information to develop computer programs that predict protein evolution, with the goal of applying the software to many different proteins.

His research has potential future applications for a range of different societal problems related to protein evolution, including antibiotic and pesticide resistance and engineering more efficient industrial enzymes for use in everything from food to drugs to laundry detergent.

“Some aspects of evolution are unpredictable,” Harms said, “like how the environment of an organism might change. But some aspects are likely predictable. This is because proteins are governed by the laws of physics, putting some pretty strong constraints on evolution. We’re hoping to identify some of the physical ‘rules’ of evolution and then use them to make predictions.”

An assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences who studies fluid mechanics applied to volcanoes, glaciers, and landscape evolution, Karlstrom will use the award to pursue his project “Long-term Controls on Short-term Patterns of Magmatism.”

Karlstrom’s project will further the understanding of volcanic eruptions and the associated societal hazards by studying the pathways of magma through time as it moves towards the Earth’s surface. He will study the eruptions of the Columbia River flood basalts that occurred 15 million years ago and now blanket much of Eastern Oregon and Washington with frozen remnants of massive basaltic lava flows.

He will focus on the exposed network of fissures that fed the largest eruptions and develop mathematical models to understand how the eruptions occurred. The research is relevant both to predicting active volcanic processes and interpreting past eruptions.

Thomas will use her award to pursue her research project, “Using the Rattlesnake Ridge landslide as a natural laboratory to study repeating earthquake evolution and development of operational repeating signal detectors” An assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, Thomas studies the physical properties of faults, seismotectonics, crustal deformation and the mechanics of earthquakes and faulting.

Thomas’ project will improve the understanding of landslide dynamics and the processes controlling a diversity of behaviors to reduce the effect of landslides on people and infrastructure. She will examine data from the Rattlesnake Ridge landslide near Yakima, Washington, detecting and analyzing small earthquakes that occurred as the landslide developed to better understand evolution of the slide body and how fault geometry influences seismicity character.

Thomas’ proposed research also includes applying data mining techniques to continuous seismic records in the Pacific Northwest to discover small earthquakes that have eluded detection by the regional seismic network. Identifying such small earthquakes will help researchers better understand regional seismicity and its relationship to large subduction zone earthquakes.

Watkins will use his award to pursue his research project, “Toward an inorganic calcite reference frame for interpreting the stable isotope composition of biogenic carbonates.” An associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, Watkins studies stable isotope geochemistry and experimental petrology.

Watkins’ project involves the study of carbonate rocks, which provide an archive of changes to the environment through geologic time. Deciphering the geologic record can be difficult, Watkins said, due to the interference caused by different environmental variables.

Researchers will carry out a detailed set of experiments in which carbonate crystals are grown in the laboratory under controlled conditions, enabling the team to determine how each environmental variable gets imprinted in minerals precipitated from aqueous solutions.

“The results will improve our ability to extract paleoenvironment information from carbonate rocks and could potentially lead to better forecasts of how the earth will respond to ongoing anthropogenic inputs of carbon dioxide to Earth's atmosphere,” Watkins said.

According to the National Science Foundation, Career Awards support early career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.” Career projects should “build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.”

“The NSF Career Award is among the most competitive grants handed out by the National Science Foundation, and it’s a great honor that our institution received five of them,” said David Conover, vice president for research and innovation. “We congratulate these promising early career researchers and look forward to the new knowledge and exciting discoveries that will result from these important projects.”

Career award proposals must address the broader effects of the projects, which requires investigators to link their research to societal impacts and include in their projects educational or outreach activities that benefit society.

Karlstrom’s project will engage new audiences by bridging science to the arts and developing techniques for exploring scientific data through sound. He will use the process of sonification — rendering data audible — to produce tools for exploring volcanic data through sound, which will be used to teach fundamentals of data science.

A classically trained violinist, he also plans collaborations with other musicians to produce outreach presentations and recordings that engage general audiences in volcano research.

“The creative process is an integral part of generating new scientific ideas, just as it is for creating compelling art,” Karlstrom said. “This project will work to demonstrate the connections between active research and new music.”

Graboyes’ project will provide mentoring and training to female UO students in science, technology, engineering and math classes in broadening their understanding of what a scientist is and furthering their understanding of the history and social studies of science. Another goal of the project is to expose and train students to use social science research methods in their future careers.

Watkins’ research will be integrated with teaching and hands-on outreach activities that introduce crystal growth and paleoclimate concepts to K-12 students and the capstone course for undergraduate seniors majoring in geology.

Thomas’ project will include several outreach components. Because the Rattlesnake Ridge landslide occurred on Yakama Nation lands, Thomas plans to present her findings to the Yakama Nation Tribal Council and other community stakeholders. The project will also include designing and leading field trips for students at Heritage University and the tribal school to understand landslide hazards in the region.

Harms’ project will expand public understanding of evolution by improving high school evolutionary biology education. His lab will host high school science teachers from local rural schools as summer researchers. He and his lab members will then collaborate with the teachers to develop a new high school curriculum that incorporates their research findings to teach evolutionary biology to high school students.

“For a lot of people, science knowledge is handed down from ‘on high’ by experts,” Harms said. “I’m excited to pull back the curtain a bit, to expose students to the process by which scientific progress is made. These high school teachers will get to bring back their experiences in the lab — even the stuff that doesn’t work — into the classroom. I hope that the high school students can get a glimpse of how exciting and hard and, well, human, scientific research is.”

—By Lewis Taylor, University Communications