NSF CAREER awards recognize UMaine early-career faculty

Jacquelyn Gill and Kristy Townsend inspire students and researchers at the University of Maine with their passion and dedication to education and research.

While their fields of research may be vastly different, they enthusiastically embrace being women in STEM careers and serving as academic role models. It is these qualities that make them ideal candidates for the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award.

Gill, an assistant professor of paleoecology and plant ecology, and Townsend, an assistant professor of neurobiology, both announced their awards from The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program earlier this year.

The NSF’s program offers “support of early-career faculty 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.”

Gill and Townsend fit the bill

According to the NSF website, the approximate 450 CAREER award recipients are expected to pursue leadership roles focused on the integration of research and education. Each grant funds a principal investigator for a total of five years.

Gill and Townsend are passionate about their projects and grateful for the support they are receiving to put resources and energy into broader impacts. Townsend studies stem cells in the adult brain and the future of metabolic health. Gill studies ice-age fossils and works to reconstruct the past.

Bridging communities while studying stem cells

Townsend’s project, “Novel Mechanisms of Adult Neurogenesis”, was awarded $1 million by the NSF CAREER grant and looks at neural stem cells in the adult brain. One goal is to determine how stem cells can replace neurons under certain conditions.

“It’s great that NSF lets you think beyond the laboratory and promotes student involvement in the research,” said Townsend.

The award also will allow Townsend to expand an outreach program for Southern Maine Community College students who are interested in biotechnology careers.

“The goal is to make that program bridge more with the University of Maine,” said Townsend.

The collaborative program with SMCC will prepare students for careers in bio-pharma and bio-tech industries – which in turn will positively impact Maine’s workforce and economic development, according to Townsend.

“We want to be realistic about students’ job prospects in these growing industries and we want to keep people living in Maine”

“Seeing” the past: from fossils to virtual reality

With a nearly $800,000 NSF CAREER grant, Gill will examine “Environmental Change and Extinction on the Mammoth Steppe.” She will reconstruct ice age landscapes and develop virtual reality technology for classrooms to “see” the past.

Gill and a team of student researchers will collect sediment core samples from locations as far as Alaska and Russia. Once analyzed, the data will then be used by a collaborative team of students, teachers and researchers to create a virtual reality game. Classrooms will have the opportunity to see the ice age landscape come to life and engage with the software as forensic scientists.

“All the tiny bits and pieces of fossils we collect can form a picture,” said Gill. “I want the project to bring really fun and meaningful science experiences to kids who don’t have access to them.”

It is a large project, and Gill is grateful for the support from the research and teaching communities.

She credits the NSF CAREER award for allowing her to inspire student scientists and reach classrooms in rural areas.

“It’s the Holy Grail for an early-career researcher,” said Gill. “It’s unique and fun because it links both your research and your teaching.”

Jacquelyn Gill and Kristy Townsend at historic leader Edith Patch's Braeside home.
Jacquelyn Gill and Kristy Townsend at historic leader Edith Patch‘s Braeside home.

A community of support builds leaders in research and education

Gill and Townsend now have the funding support to continue to be influential leaders in their fields. They encourage other early career faculty to seek funding opportunities like this.

“At the early, critical phase of your career, you need reliable support,” said Townsend.

Jason Charland, Director of the Office of Research Development (ORD), also encourages faculty to advance their careers as researchers and educators by applying for grants with the support and assistance of the ORD.

“The Office of Research Development makes a concerted effort to meet with early career faculty as soon as they arrive on campus to understand faculty’s research and scholarship goals and how we can help advance those goals through technical assistance and training,” said Charland.

The future is bright

Both NSF CAREER projects are in the beginning phases. With the success of programs like this, students locally, nationally, and beyond will be able to find inspiration for research and education due to the efforts of educators like Gill and Townsend.

“Here at UMaine we have a strong tradition of great graduate and undergraduate education,” said Gill. “It’s a great place for research opportunity.”

Media Contact: Christel Peters, phone 207.581.3571

UMaine faculty interested in learning more about NSF CAREER and other early career funding opportunities are encouraged to contact Jason Charland , phone 207.581.2461