Twice As Good
2017 is turning out to be a very good year for MU’s Department of Geological Sciences. The department is in the process of installing the first micro-CT scanner on campus, which will allow researchers across campus to analyze samples three-dimensionally without destroying them, as well as a highly customized scanning electron microscope. These instruments will be housed in a new lab overseen by Assistant Professor Jim Schiffbauer, who also has the distinction of being one of two members of the department to receive the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, which the NSF calls “its most prestigious award in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher–scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.” Assistant Professor John Huntley, a friend and close associate of Schiffbauer’s, received the other NSF CAREER Award this year.
“It is highly unusual for two members of the same department to receive the honor at the same time—from the same review panel for that program,” Huntley says.
Their Five-Year Mission
Both professors will receive over $500,000 to support their research efforts over a five-year period, and both must develop a strong educational component that is well-integrated with their research.
For Schiffbauer, that means introducing elementary students to the time period he specializes in—the Cambrian Period, the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era that spanned approximately 541–485 million years ago. It is the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record.
“We’re going to bring the Cambrian into elementary school classrooms to try to get younger kids—when they are starting to get a push for STEM education—to get them interested in paleontology outside of dinosaurs,” Schiffbauer says. “Everybody goes through that fascination with dinosaurs, but we want them to also be fascinated by the really weird things that we see in the Cambrian—all kinds of cool stuff existed then, including our earliest animal ancestors.” He says the awards also provide support for graduate students and undergraduates, who will write the text for a coloring book about the Cambrian Period Schiffbauer’s team will develop for students at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri. Schiffbauer’s research plans to examine how fossils of the Cambrian were preserved, from perspectives of paleobiology, geochemistry, and sedimentology, and using both field- and lab-based approaches. Analyses will rely heavily on the new electron microscope, which was acquired through a grant from NSF Instrumentation & Facilities to Schiffbauer.
A New Look at an Old Icon
Huntley’s research has focused on exploring the link between sea-level rise and increasing parasitism.
“That’s what the research portion will help us better understand—how does the biota and the environment respond as you go through climate and sea-level cycles? We’re going to introduce some geochemical techniques to what we’ve being doing to try to reconstruct what is happening with temperature, nutrient availability, and salinity, and see if we can figure out if there is a correspondence between some of these factors and the increase in trematode (parasite) prevalence,” Huntley says. One of the basic concepts his team will focus on is “deep time” or geologic time—looking at biotic responses to environmental change and climate change to see how organisms respond. That exploration of deep time is the basis of a new course Huntley is developing as part of the educational component of his award, Geology of the Columns.
“When you look at MU’s columns, they are made up of fossil material that was deposited in a shallow tropical sea around 350 million years ago when Missouri was a very different place,” Huntley says. “The idea is there are students who are not science-inclined, but perhaps we can increase their scientific interest and literacy. We can teach them the fundamentals of earth and life history through the stories preserved in this beloved Mizzou icon.”
Schiffbauer and Huntley both say they also will encourage their grad students to pursue teaching by asking them to enroll in a minor in college teaching, so part of the professors’ responsibilities during the next five years will include mentoring the next generation of educators and researchers.
These NSF CAREER Awards apply toward Association of American Universities metrics. The University of Missouri is one of 62 AAU member institutions in the U.S and Canada. On a historical note, their department chair E.B. Branson Professor Alan Whittington previously received an NSF CAREER Award.