Administrators at the University of Missouri announced today that two paleobiologists have received the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award. John Huntley and Jim Schiffbauer, assistant professors of geological sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science, each will receive more than $500,000 over the next five years in support of early career development activities such as research and science and to integrate their studies into education programs.

“It is highly unusual for two members of the same department to receive NSF CAREER grants at the same time,” said Mark McIntosh, interim vice chancellor for research, graduate studies and economic development. “Both candidates were chosen during the same cycle, which means that the review panel considered the value of their proposals simultaneously. To receive this level of federal funding at the same time shows that their research and academic projects are of the highest caliber and highlights the outstanding educational opportunities for our undergraduate and graduate students.”

Getting a Closer Look at Science

The Department of Geological Sciences is installing a highly customized scanning electron microscope and the first micro-computed X-ray tomography (microCT) scanner on campus, which will allow researchers across disciplines to analyze three-dimensional samples without destroying them. Schiffbauer will oversee the new lab, which will be an integral part of his NSF award.

As part of his CAREER plan, Schiffbauer will introduce area elementary students to the Cambrian Period, a time when most marine invertebrates first appeared in the fossil record. Also dubbed the “Cambrian explosion,” fossilized records from this time provide glimpses into evolutionary biology when the world’s ecosystems rapidly changed and diversified. Researchers will investigate, using the capabilities of the new lab, how Cambrian organisms are fossilized from geochemical and paleoenvironmental perspectives.

“We’re going to bring the Cambrian Period into elementary school classrooms to introduce kids to paleontology, paleoecology and fossil preservation,” Schiffbauer said. “This early push for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM education, is critical at an early age, when all most kids know about paleontology is dinosaurs. We want to show them the origin of animals and get them excited about science.”

The NSF award provides support for graduate and undergraduate students, who will write text for a coloring book about the Cambrian Period. Schiffbauer’s team will work with educators and students at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School in Columbia.

Let the Columns Stand

When seeking clues about the future effects of possible climate change, sometimes scientists look to the past. Huntley’s past research includes ancient clams from the Holocene Epoch that began 11,700 years ago. The clams indicate that current sea level rise may mimic the same conditions that led to an upsurge in parasitic trematodes, or flatworms. His research has focused on exploring the link between sea-level rise and increasing parasitism.

“The research portion of the CAREER grant will help us determine how coastal ecosystems have responded to past climate change and sea-level cycles,” Huntley said. “We’re going to reconstruct what happened with temperature, nutrient availability and salinity, and see how they are related to trematode (parasite) prevalence.”

Huntley’s team explores biological responses to environmental and climate change in the fossil record and that exploration of deep time is the basis of a new course called “Geology of the Columns.”

“When you look at MU’s columns, they are made of fossil material deposited in Missouri in a shallow tropical sea around 350 million years ago,” Huntley said. “For students who are not science-inclined, we hope that we can increase their scientific interest and literacy on the fundamentals of earth and life history through the stories preserved in this beloved Mizzou icon. Additionally, we will adapt this curriculum as continuing education opportunities for middle and high school science teachers with the goal of reaching younger students as well.”

Training the Next Generation of Scientists and Educators

Schiffbauer and Huntley also will encourage their graduate students to pursue teaching by asking them to enroll in a minor in college teaching through the MU College of Education. Together, they will mentor their students in scientific and education pursuits.

The NSF CAREER grants are due to begin June 1, 2017.