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NMSU celebrates faculty who received prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER awards

New Mexico State University celebrated at a Research Rally Thursday two faculty members who have each received major project funding through a prestigious National Science Foundation award that supports the efforts of junior faculty.

Woman in blue shirt
Karen Mabry, assistant professor of biology, received $910,000 to study the dispersal of brush mice through a social landscape. (NMSU photo by Darrell J. Pehr)
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Jessica Houston was awarded $500,000 to research flow cytometry, the study of the measurement of a cell, such as a skin or blood cell. (NMSU photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

Karen Mabry, assistant professor of biology, received $910,000 to study the dispersal of brush mice through a social landscape, and Jessica Houston was awarded $500,000 to research flow cytometry, the study of the measurement of a cell, such as a skin or blood cell. Both projects are slated to run until 2017.

Vimal Chaitanya, vice president for research at NMSU, said NSF's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award is highly competitive and that Mabry and Houston were competing with the best schools to win the funding.

"In my opinion, the future of the country and the future of NMSU is the hands of the new faculty members like them," Chaitanya said. "As long as our educational system produces these talents in a nurturing and supportive environment, we will continue to have such success stories."

Young animals must often leave their birthplace and search for a new home before producing their own offspring, a process known as natal dispersal. Dispersal behavior underlies many ecological processes, and is crucial in allowing animals to respond to and cope with human-induced environmental changes such as loss of habitat.

The goal of Mabry's project is to determine how young animals navigate the complex social and ecological environments they must move through during dispersal by radiotracking the movements of both dispersing juvenile and resident adult brush mice.

Through her work, Mabry hopes to answer three questions: How do pre-existing behavioral differences among individuals influence dispersal movements; how do social interactions with resident adults affect the behavior of juveniles as they move through the landscape; and how are survival and reproductive success affected by the interplay of socialecological conditions and individual dispersal strategies?

The project integrates teaching and research opportunities.

Through a multi-institution undergraduate course, students will collaborate across campuses using a wilderness wireless network and social media to coordinate field research projects, collect data and communicate their experiences to a wider audience. Mabry said it is important for students to develop these modern social media techniques for scientific collaboration.

"They'll be sharing what they are doing with their friends, their family, at NMSU and around the world," she said. "We are basically bringing everything full circle using these social networking approaches - the same kinds of social networking approaches that are the concepts for this research on the social aspects of dispersal."

Outreach activities through this work also include introducing elementary school students to the tracking technology employed in the field research.

The goal of Houston's work is to discover modern approaches for the detection of molecular excited-state kinetics and fluorescence decay using flow cytometry.

Her program is supported by the NSF's BIO Directorate and the Division of Biological Infrastructure under the Instrument Development for Biological Research program.

Houston said her research focus is on the advancement of flow cytometry. She said she is interested in the excited-state dynamics of fluorophores, proteins and particles when combined with cellular analysis. Houston and her team conduct transiently measured fluorescence decay experiments through flow cytometry using time-dependent photonics. She also introduces applications for this technique that involve biomaterials and digital signal processing.

Houston and her team study issues related to in vitro cellular systems and measure intrinsic fluorescence dynamics in order to provide new ways to characterize, separate, sort and analyze populations of cells. This project will answer such questions as: How can one best tailor a time-dependent analysis to better exploit or suppress autofluorescence, extrinsic fluorescence, or Raman signals; will rare events and new fluorescence decay phenomena be revealed with such high-throughput techniques?

Activities developed through this work will combine mentorship of underrepresented minorities, in-state cytometry collaborations, cytometry teaching workshops, cytometry user-friendly development and peer teaching opportunities. There will also be educational outreach to students in fifth grade.

Houston said it is her passion for New Mexico students that is a driving force for the educational opportunities from this project.

"Knowing the types of students who are here and really believing in them and knowing their strengths and their ability and potential to do well, I'm excited to give them an opportunity to do hardcore engineering and work on instrumentation that is really multidisciplinary," Houston said.

NMSU President Barbara Couture called it a spectacular achievement that two NMSU faculty received this award in the same year.

"The future of our success in this society really lies in young faculty who are here at our research universities doing seminal work that is going to lead to discovery that is going to help us is so many ways in this society," she said. "We are counting on these young faculty (members) to continue to be successful and we are very delighted that they have this kind of support to pursue their work."

The NMSU Office of the Vice President for Research hosts a series of Research Rallies each semester to inform the university community and stakeholders within the state of New Mexico about NMSU's research successes and contributions. These rallies honor faculty and staff investigators for significant, externally funded projects and are designed to elevate awareness about NMSU's research efforts and the university's impact on the New Mexico community and elsewhere.