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NSF Grant Supports Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Research At Muhlenberg College

ALLENTOWN, Pa. ( January 18, 2005 ) - The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Dr. Richard A. Niesenbaum, associate professor and head of the biology department at Muhlenberg College, a $1.05 million, four-year grant. This is the largest NSF grant ever awarded to the College.

The Muhlenberg grant is one of only four awarded nationally through the NSF’s “Collaborative Research at Undergraduate Institutions” (CRUI) program.

The grant project will involve multiple departments at the College in exploring environmental, chemical and genetic bases of variation in plant-insect interactions. This grant is the second major NSF award for Niesenbaum.

The goal of this project is to explore why plants of a given type vary in the degree to which they are eaten by insects. The study will focus on Lindera benzoin (spicebush) and the Tulip Tree Beauty caterpillars that make these plants their primary food source. The scientists involved in the project have differing specialties, including plant ecology, molecular biology, analytical chemistry and statistics. They will take an integrative approach to examining how light and other natural factors determine the extent to which caterpillars will eat a particular spicebush plant. This will be the first study that simultaneously examines how both physical and biological factors, including plant genotype, intersect in the determination of insect feeding rates in a natural, woody plant system.

This work will be central to the general understanding of plant-insect interactions in natural systems. The interdisciplinary collaboration will permit researchers to approach the problem from multiple perspectives: plant, insect, chemical and statistical; and on multiple levels of scale: chemical, genetic, and ecological.

Offering students opportunities to collaborate with faculty is an important part of Muhlenberg’s science curriculum and a core part of this research program. Current and past funding from NSF, NIH, and Muhlenberg College have created an active student research program that supports more than 25 students each summer and a larger number during the school year. This project will increase opportunities in the area of ecology and generate a more diverse, interactive group of students and faculty, involving them in a research project that makes connections among all levels of biology, chemistry and statistics. Participating students will have the opportunity to engage fully in science including project conception, experimental design, field and laboratory research, data analysis, presenting in-house and at national meetings, and writing for professional journals. More importantly, their participation in an interdisciplinary project will permit them to see that collaboration is vital for fully understanding biological systems.

Faculty members collaborating with Niesenbaum in this project are: Dr. Gregory Ciccionetti, assistant professor of mathematics; Dr. Marten Edwards, assistant professor of biology; and Dr. Christine Ingersoll, associate professor of chemistry.

Muhlenberg College, a highly selective, liberal arts school, has one of the nation’s highest success rates in health profession, law and graduate school placement.

Released
January 18, 2005

For more information, contact
Jill Lowery 484-664-3235