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Idaho Universities Receive $20 Million to Study How Native Plants, Animals Respond to Changing Landscapes

Two people watch a drone
Jennifer Forbey, left, conducts desert field sagebrush research with an unmanned aircraft and 3D scanning technology.

A consortium of Idaho researchers will receive a $20 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to examine how environmental stressors impact the growth, survival and reproduction of native plants and animals.

The project, titled “Genes to Environment: Modeling, Mechanisms and Mapping,” is a collaboration between Boise State University, University of Idaho, Idaho State University and numerous state, federal and tribal partners through NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) program. With matching funds from Idaho’s Higher Education Research Council, the award will support fundamental research, education and workforce development occurring across Idaho’s public research universities and predominately undergraduate institutions for the next five years.

The team will work to understand how genetic characteristics help or hinder the ability of plants and animals to tolerate diverse and changing environmental conditions by focusing on two prominent, iconic and economically important organisms in the Gem State — rainbow trout and sagebrush. However, their broader findings could help inform natural resource policies and management decisions in Idaho and throughout the American West.

“We chose rainbow trout and sagebrush as our non-model study organisms because the health and success of these species are indicators of healthy rivers and rangeland ecosystems important to Idaho and the American West,” said Jennifer S. Forbey, an associate professor of biological sciences and scientific lead on the EPSCoR award at Boise State. “A major outcome of this project is to build a strong and diverse workforce with the scientific knowledge, technological skills and social networks to be leaders and innovators in maintaining the health and resiliency of any organism in any social-ecological system.”

“This award showcases the incredible work that can be undertaken when Idaho’s brightest research minds work together to better understand, and therefore protect, our environment,” said Harold Blackman, interim vice president for research and economic development at Boise State.

Boise State will rely on expertise and infrastructure in the Biomolecular Research Center, Boise Center Aerospace Laboratory, the Human Environmental Systems Program and the Andrus Center for Public Policy while also leveraging strengths at partner institutions such as the Center for Modelling Complex Interactions, the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies, and the Center for Resilient Communities at University of Idaho, as well as the Molecular Research Core Facility and the Unmanned Aerial Systems Data Analytics Lab at Idaho State.

In order to expand Idaho’s capability to conduct this large, complex study, Boise State will hire four new faculty to join six recent faculty hires with relevant expertise. These early career scientists also will contribute to the growth of key interdisciplinary research programs including Human Environment Systems and the recent academic doctoral program in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at Boise State.

The award’s workforce development, diversity and partnership elements will include training efforts that extend to faculty, postdocs, graduate students and undergraduate students within and outside of the three research universities, including North Idaho College, Lewis-Clark State College, College of Western Idaho and the College of Southern Idaho. The training programs will help Idaho increase participation from underserved populations, low-income, rural and/or first-generation college students, and women through diversity programs, citizen science and outreach. In addition, the project builds on partnerships with other research-oriented state, federal, and tribal agencies, private organizations and nonprofit collaborators. Agency, industry and tribal partners will participate in scientific data exchanges, help refine research questions and provide internship opportunities for students.

Janet E. Nelson, interim Idaho EPSCoR project director and vice president for Research and Economic Development at the University of Idaho, is the lead investigator on the EPSCoR award. Donna Llewellyn, executive director for the Institute for STEM and Diversity Initiatives at Boise State, is the workforce development lead on the EPSCoR award for the entire state, and Forbey is the scientific lead for Boise State. They are joined by scientific leads Ron Hardy, director of the Aquaculture Research Institute and university distinguished professor at University of Idaho, and Colden Baxter, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Idaho State University.

“Idaho has been remarkably successful in winning large EPSCoR awards since 1989, and this new project is another great example of what Idaho’s universities can achieve by working together. It will continue to strengthen Idaho’s scientific research excellence in areas of national importance and which are critical to achieving the goals of Idaho’s science and technology strategic plan,” said Laird Noh, Idaho EPSCoR committee chairman.