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NMSU biology professor receives prestigious National Science Foundation award

New Mexico State University assistant professor of biology Karen Mabry will receive nearly a million dollars for her research over the next five years thanks to the National Science Foundation. Mabry, whose research involves the movement and social behavior of mammals, received the NSF's prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award.

Karen Mabry, an assistant professor of biology at New Mexico State University, has won the prestigious CAREER award for her work on small animal dispersal, while integrating cutting-edge educational activities into her teaching plans. (Photo by Hamid M. Rad)

Mabry will be recognized at a research rally on Thursday, April 19, at 10:15 a.m. in the Senate Chambers at Corbett Center.

CAREER awards are presented to junior faculty who combine research creativity with innovative teaching. Mabry will receive a five-year grant for $910,000 that will be used to support students in her small mammal research lab, implement educational objectives and initiate new projects studying the social and movement behavior of animals.

"Karen's combinational approach to both behavioral and evolutionary ecology is pioneering in both the use of the variety of data she is collecting as well as how behavior is shaped by adaptations to the environment," said Michele Nishiguchi, biology associate department head.

She will conduct her research at the Quail Ridge Reserve, a field site in northern California that has state-of-the-art automated animal tracking technology. The remote-sensing technology will enable her to track tagged mice throughout the rural area.

"If you've ever seen people radio tracking lions on the Serengeti on Animal Planet, this is exactly it, just scaled down to a very, very small size," Mabry said. "We put these little radio collars on mice, and then these give off a signal and we can pick it up with a radio receiver and antenna and determine where the mouse is located."

Mabry studies dispersal behavior in juvenile brush mice. Dispersal is the movement between the place where an animal is born and where it reproduces, including the search process that goes on as animals look for new places to live.

"As we humans influence natural landscapes, and break them up into smaller and smaller pieces, and put roads through forests, things that might impede movement by animals, these movement processes are becoming more and more important for keeping these animal and plant populations around," Mabry said.

The NSF grant will support a field course where undergraduate students can learn methodologies and use the advanced tracking system to conduct their own research projects, gather data remotely and collaborate with students from other universities. Students will share those experiences from the field through various social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter.

"Kind of in the way that I collaborate with a lot of my colleagues, not only are we not at the same institution, but many times we are not even in the same state," Mabry said. "And so, a lot of our collaboration takes place over email or Skype, and we're going to have the students emulate that."

A partnership with the Asombro Institute For Science Education, an organization dedicated to increasing scientific literacy by fostering an understanding of the Chihuahuan Desert, will allow Mabry to develop educational programs that bring the tracking technology into Southern New Mexico elementary schools. As part of her outreach efforts, she plans to teach children in fourth through sixth grades how to use the tracking technology.

Mabry first became interested in animal movement in the late 90s as she studied habitat fragmentation and the influences it might have on animal populations. In 1999, she received a bachelor's in biological sciences from Clemson University in South Carolina. She earned a master's in ecology from the University of Georgia in 2001, where she studied the effect of corridors on animal movement and attained her doctorate in animal behavior in 2007 from the University of California, Davis.

"I'm quite honored to have received the award," Mabry said. "As with all NSF awards, the review process is very rigorous. But beyond that, as an early-career scientist, this particular award represents a real 'vote of confidence' in me and my research by other scientists in my field."

For more information visit the Mabry Lab at https://sites.google.com/site/mabrylab/home.