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Faculty member receives National Science Foundation CAREER Award

Photo of Britt Heidinger

Britt Heidinger

NDSU assistant professor Britt Heidinger recently received a $1.29 million National Science Foundation CAREER Award. The award is the agency’s most prestigious recognition for early stage faculty and supports scholars who are likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. 

Recipients are chosen on the basis of creative career development plans that integrate research and education within the context of their university’s mission. Approximately 600 individuals are awarded each year. 

Heidinger studies how organisms cope with stressful and changing environments and the five-year award will provide funding for research into how body size is impacted by climate in a familiar backyard bird, the house sparrow. 

In the mid 1800’s, house sparrows were introduced into the U.S. from Europe and quickly spread across the country. Around this same time, a scientist named Bergmann noticed that animals are often larger at northern than southern latitudes and suggested that this was because larger individuals are better able to retain heat in colder temperatures while smaller individuals are better at dissipating heat in warmer ones. Consistent with his idea, within 100 years of introduction to the U.S., house sparrows were larger in the northern than the southern part of the country. Over the past 50 years, average temperatures have risen, and house sparrows are predicted to have shrunk, particularly in areas that have experienced greater increases in winter temperatures, such as North Dakota. But little is known about how these rapid changes in body size occur. 

Heidinger will use a combination of historical museum specimens, experiments and molecular techniques to investigate how body size has changed in response to rising temperatures. While Heidinger’s avian research experience frames the direction of her project, it also features an education component of providing research opportunities for American Indian undergraduates. Students at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota, will take part in the research. 

“I wanted to find a local need to help frame the direction of my NSF CAREER Award application and my experience providing STEM learning opportunities for American Indian students provided it. Besides creating research opportunities in the students’ home areas, this will also extend the footprint of the study itself,” Heidinger said. 

She notes her time as co-director of the ND ESPCoR Nurturing American Tribal Undergraduate Research and Education, called NATURE, Sunday Academy Program at NDSU gave her the perspective required for this aspect of the study. 

In addition to upper Midwest resources, Heidinger will partner with the Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. Through the partnership, she discovered specimens of house sparrows and the accompanying data from a research project in the 1970s that she hopes will provide an important historic perspective. 

At the conclusion of her study, she will share her data with the museum to assist future researchers. In addition, people from the University of Kansas, Oklahoma State University and Louisiana State University also will contribute to the study. 

NSF CAREER awardees at NDSU have received more than $10 million in grants to conduct research in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, civil and electrical engineering, computer science, pharmaceutical sciences, plant sciences, coatings and polymeric materials, and veterinary and microbiological sciences.

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