Kimberly Sheldon, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), was awarded a highly-competitive Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award is NSF’s most prestigious recognition for early-career faculty members and recognizes individuals “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.”
The multi-year, $1.3 million grant will support Sheldon’s project examining behavioral shifts of temperate and tropical dung beetles in response to temperature change. In addition, the grant will provide internships for UT undergraduate students and research opportunities for Native American high school students.
“Dung beetles remove and recycle waste and are thus both ecologically and economically valuable, but these beneficial insects may be in trouble,” Sheldon said. “Like all insects, dung beetle development and survival are impacted by temperature. Researchers predict that warmer temperatures will result in population declines and tropical insects, which make up the vast majority of biological diversity on Earth, may be particularly at risk.”
Insects might compensate for temperature increases by shifting their behavior to use cooler microclimates within their environment. Sheldon’s research team will spend the next five years investigating how dung beetles in Tennessee and Ecuador respond to warmer and more variable temperatures and how that behavior impacts their offspring’s development and survival.
“We will expose tropical and temperate dung beetles to temperature changes using lab experiments and field manipulations,” Sheldon said. “After observing the dung beetles’ responses, we will build a model to predict impacts of temperature change on insect populations.”
This work fits into Sheldon’s overall research program aimed at understanding the processes leading to the distribution and abundance of organisms and applying this knowledge to predict the impacts of climate change on biological diversity.
As part of the award, Sheldon will lead STEM education initiatives for students from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. She will work with a collaborator from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) to support science programs for Native American high school students. Her lab will also host undergraduate interns with the goal of increasing STEM literacy through field-based inquiry.
“This type of hands-on experience can increase interest in STEM fields and help students gain confidence to pursue advanced degrees,” she said.
Sheldon, who joined the UT faculty in 2016, credits the backing she received from her colleagues and the college for her successful grant proposal.
“I was given the encouragement and freedom to pursue my research goals and develop the education program that led to the CAREER award,” Sheldon said. “I also have great collaborators in Ecuador and with the EBCI who have supported the research and education goals, and talented lab members who gathered some of the preliminary data that went into the proposal.”
Sheldon received her bachelor’s degree in natural resources from the University of Michigan and her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington before completing an NSF postdoctoral fellowship in biology. She received the 2020 Faculty Academic Outreach Research and Creative Activity Award from the UT College of Arts and Sciences.