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NMSU's USDA grant to use bird migration to prepare new scientists to respond to ecological disasters

Release Date: 15 Nov 2022
NMSU's USDA grant to use bird migration to prepare new scientists to respond to ecological disasters

New Mexico State University's Departments of Biology and Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology are collaborating with Los Alamos National Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey and others on a project titled "Prepping for Disaster Ecology: HSI-based training for managing climate change impacts on migratory birds."

"Disaster ecology is a term that we're hearing more of today because of a number of different extreme weather events coming together across the country," said Martha Desmond, Regents professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology. "This project really stemmed from the 2020 avian mass mortality event when we saw thousands of bird deaths across New Mexico."

Desmond and her team were among scientists across the country working to determine the cause of the sudden massive die-off of hundreds of thousands of birds in New Mexico and the Southwest. As a result, she and Biology Professor Timothy Wright discussed the need to train a new force of scientists to focus on these types of climate-related incidents.

NMSU is among a number of Hispanic-serving higher education institutions across the country receiving grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support academic development and career attainment of underrepresented groups. The $250,000 grant, coupled with funds from two colleges and the NMSU vice president for research's office, will support 24 paid positions for undergraduate, master's and Ph.D.-level researchers at the main NMSU campus over four years, preparing a diverse cadre of students to join the next generation of science leaders.

"The USDA is interested in training scientists to manage agricultural and natural ecosystems," Wright said. "We are finding that there are increasing numbers of ecological disasters happening of all sorts, including stronger hurricanes, hotter wildfires, longer droughts, harsher winter storms and bigger floods. The larger picture is to prepare a diverse new generation of scientists to respond to these disasters, but with this project we’re focusing on one particular group of organisms, migratory birds, that have suffered large declines and seem to be suffering disproportionately from these ecological disasters.”

Wright is the director of the project, and Desmond is a co-director along with Abigail Lawson, an assistant professor who also works with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Jeanne Fair from Los Alamos National Lab’s ecological monitoring program. The Department of Defense, Bureau of Land Management and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service and Forest Service also will be part of the collaboration to investigate the science behind mass mortality of migratory birds in the western U.S. and to train and mentor students to understand and mitigate future ecological disasters.

“The program will recruit students from NMSU’s main campus, and Doña Ana and Alamogordo branch campuses to directly support 16 students at the undergraduate level and eight at the graduate level over four years,” Wright said.

Wright explained the program will provide graduate and undergraduate students with research experience, life skills, critical thinking and broader experiences to be successful leaders in the face of rapidly changing biomes. During the academic year, students will conduct mentored research on migratory bird biology. During the summer, they will intern in agencies, present their work at scientific conferences, take core courses in migration biology (with a foreign study component), scientific communication and science and ethics, and work with individualized mentor teams.

Students also will take workshops on career pathways as well as “soft skills” like financial literacy, interviews and resume writing.

Recruitment is starting now for the first cohort of undergraduate research scholars, who will enter the program in spring 2023. Interested students should contact Wright or Desmond by email.

In addition to the first cohort of 24 students, support from the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences will broaden the outreach through student workshops and on federal jobs in natural resource sciences at the three institutions, impacting approximately 100 students annually.

"If we want to take smart young people and promote them into leadership positions, we have to train them," Desmond said. "We can give them strong grounding in ecological principles, and then expose them to some of the current research to start preparing them, whether they're undergraduates or graduate students, to face those future climate change issues that they're going to encounter throughout their careers."

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