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Two NSF Graduate Research Fellowships awarded for research on brain anatomy and climate change

Jean Andrews | Sep 9, 2015
Catherine Early (photo by Jean Andrews/Ohio University) and Wesley Parker (photo provided).
Catherine Early (photo by Jean Andrews/Ohio University) and Wesley Parker (photo provided).

Ohio University graduate student Catherine Early and undergraduate Wesley Parker each have received a 3-year award of $138,000 from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based masters and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. The awards provide the means to allow the students to pursue research on a full-time basis.

Early is a doctoral student working under the direction of Lawrence Witmer, professor of anatomy and Chang Ying-Chien Professor of Paleontology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. Early will develop techniques to study brain structures of extinct birds.

“This fellowship will allow me to delve deeper into my research questions, studying a broader sample of birds and more thoroughly establishing evolutionary patterns present in the organization of their brain anatomy. The gift of time is huge,” Early said.

Using a novel 3D imaging technique, Early will study brain anatomy of extinct birds by studying the brains of modern birds and comparing them to the impressions left by the brain on fossilized bird skulls. By developing a thorough understanding of how internal brain structure relates to external brain structures in living birds, Early will identify patterns in living bird anatomy that will allow her to make inferences about the brain anatomy of extinct birds.

Early’s research is important because it provides a critical link between the present and the past, according to Witmer.

“A key point that I try to communicate to all my students is that paleontology isn’t really ‘the study of fossils’ but actually ‘the study of ancient life,’ and how can we ever hope to understand ancient life without a rich understanding of modern-day life?” he said. “You have to have one foot in the past, but the other foot firmly planted in the present.”

Part of her fellowship commitment includes sharing knowledge with diverse audiences. In addition to teaching paleontology to children’s groups and assisting in numerous science outreach efforts in the Witmer Lab at Ohio University, Early sees an opportunity to use 3D printing techniques to increase accessibility for students with visual impairments.

The second Ohio University fellowship recipient, Parker, says he is thrilled to be given the opportunity to spend time at a field station on Tenerife, an island which is part of the Spanish Canary Islands, to study climate change.

While an undergraduate at Ohio University, Parker double-majored in geological sciences and Latin American studies and wrote a senior thesis on molluscan fossils under the guidance of Alycia Stigall, an associate professor of paleontology in the Department of Geological Sciences.

Stigall emphasizes that within the department, professors train their students to critically analyze real world data through intensive field work with “real” rocks and fossils. 

“One of the hallmarks of our program is our emphasis on moving student learning from beyond canned classroom exercises to the complexities found in authentic data.  This prepares our students well for the next phases of their careers—whether continuing in academia as Wesley is or pursing employment in industry, consulting, government or other paths,” she noted.

Parker, who will use his fellowship for graduate study at the University of Cincinnati, will track climate change over the last 10,000 years through the study of marine snails, or limpets, from The Canary Islands in Spain. When ancient and modern snails form their shells, they excrete calcium carbonate, which contains chemical substances found in the surrounding environment. The composition of chemicals in ancient snails may be analyzed and compared to the modern environment on a local and global scale to determine changes over the millennia in terms of precipitation, temperature and salinity.

“I’m excited to learn more about stable isotope geochemistry. I will be able to add my voice to the environmental educators who are helping us prepare ourselves as the global climate changes. And international education is especially important, given the globalizing nature of our society,” Parker said.

Ohio University students can find fellowship listings online at https://www.ohio.edu/fellowships . The Research Division hosts workshops during the school year to help connect students to opportunities. For more information, contact Roxanne Malé-Brune, director of grant development and projects, at male-bru@ohio.edu .