Two St. Olaf faculty members simultaneously receive prestigious NSF CAREER Awards
St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Physics Alden Adolph and Assistant Professor of Biology Norman Lee have each received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award. Two faculty receiving the award simultaneously is a first in St. Olaf history.
The award offers research funding for early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead scientific advances in their areas of expertise. Lee received a grant of $980,509, and Adolph received a grant of $557,178.
Their proposed research has relevance within the college community as they work to increase research opportunities for students. Such opportunities will provide students with experiences in solving current scientific problems using state-of-the-art experimental, analytical, and computational techniques that are highly sought-after in the workforce, and in other academic settings.
In synergy with the research objectives, both grants aim to diversify the STEM workforce by attracting and retaining persons that have been traditionally excluded because of their ethnicity or race (PEERs). This work involves developing an intergenerational museum exhibit to spark public interests in the natural sciences, integrating genuine research inquiry in teaching course topics via course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs), and developing pedagogical practices to foster inclusive learning environments.
Lee is researching the sensory basis of how the acoustic parasitoid fly Ormia ochracea can recognize and locate the calling songs of its host, the field cricket. Host crickets on the Hawaiian Islands have recently evolved novel cricket songs to avoid being heard by the flies, which is now a textbook example of rapid evolution in an animal communication system. Lee and his research group (Lee Lab of Neural Systems and Behavior) have proposed to examine how Ormia ochracea are adapting and responding to these novel cricket songs.
“If the fly’s auditory system is evolving in response to evolving cricket songs, this will be a unique opportunity to document rapid evolutionary change in a sensory system to exploit novel signals,” he says.
Adolph is researching the reflectivity of snow and its effects on the climate.
“As temperature increases, snow begins to melt, which lowers the snow’s reflectivity and increases the amount of sunlight it absorbs. The absorbed light leads to further temperature increase, and this warming process can have far reaching implications for our climate,” she says.
A number of factors are known to darken snow, such as larger snow grain sizes and impurities in the snow like dust, soot, and algae. One factor that is not well understood is how the liquid water content in snow reduces reflectivity. This factor will be increasingly important as wet snow becomes more prevalent due to more frequent rain on snow events and larger extent and duration of surface melt on ice sheets and glaciers. Adolph’s research will involve field measurements, laboratory experiments, and modeling work to address how liquid water affects snow reflectivity.
In addition to her research work, Adolph is the director of the Engineering Studies Program at St. Olaf. This program, started in the fall of 2020, offers students the opportunity to get engineering experience within the context of a liberal arts degree with small class sizes and close student-faculty relationships.
Both Lee and Adolph also work closely with St. Olaf students on their research, and are especially working to increase research opportunities for historically underrepresented students.
They will both provide opportunities for students to help directly with research. Adolph’s research will also be accessed by 30-40 students through a newly developed Engineering Fellows Program, where students work on engineering design projects with St. Olaf faculty to create instrumentation for their labs.
These undergraduate research experiences help promote retention, and “create opportunities for undergraduates to meaningfully engage in research and build a scientific identity,” Adolph says.