BATON ROUGE - LSU's Sophie Warny, assistant professor of palynology in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and curator of education at LSU's Museum of Natural Science, has received one of the most prestigious awards handed out by the National Science Foundation, or NSF - its CAREER Award, meant to support junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher, mentor and scholar through outstanding research, scholarship and educational outreach.
"It is such an honor to be selected to receive such a prestigious award from the National Science Foundation," said Warny. "The day I was hired by LSU as a tenure-track faculty, I made it my priority to build a lab and research group that could compete for this award. I always dreamed of having a CAREER Award because this program is the perfect combination of top-of-the-line research and outreach to the community, two things very important to me as a researcher, as a professor and as a mother."
Warny's research focuses on climate change in the historical past of Antarctica. Already, Warny and her research team have discovered a previously unknown Antarctic warm period approximately 15.7 million years ago through the analysis of frozen fossils of pollen and spores, called palynomorphs.
"The $582,000 that comes with this award shows how important our geological research is, and through that grant, I am glad to be able to help support LSU's outstanding efforts as the state's flagship research university," said Warny. "The grant has already allowed me to attract two outstanding Ph.D. students, Kate Griener and Marie Thomas."
With the CAREER Award, she will have research support for a minimum of five years to conduct high-resolution paleo-environmental studies based on current and new samples. Pollen and spores will provide data on past vegetation, while algae samples will give Warny more details about sea-surface conditions in Antarctica's past.
"This data will help us to understand why the continent underwent such drastic climatic changes more than 15 million years ago," said Warny. "This kind of information is especially relevant today, when we see warming patterns occurring all over the world. It's imperative we know how Antarctica reacted to the warming period so that we can perhaps draw some modern-day conclusions from our results."
As part of the educational outreach component of the CAREER grant, Warny will advise a diverse group of students and educators. The palynological data collected as part of this research will be utilized, in part, to develop new lectures on Antarctic palynology. These lectures will be made available through collaboration with the LSU Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or HHMI, program.
Warny will also direct three Louisiana middle- or high-school teachers in their pursuit of a Masters of Natural Science for science educators. These teachers will assist in building a professional development program for science teachers based on the map they will construct of Antarctic paleovegetation. They will work with Warny and Susan Carbotte of Columbia University, using Columbia's GeoMapApp mapping software. Community-based activities will also be organized to increase awareness of science and to alert students and the public of opportunities in scientific fields.
Warny, together with husband Philip Bart, also a geologist at LSU, played an integral role in bringing Polar-Palooza to Baton Rouge in 2007. Polar-Palooza, a participant in the International Polar Year of March 2007- March 2009, which is a concerted international research initiative focusing on the poles and the changes each is undergoing due to climate change, brought real life stories of adventure and research in the poles to the city's audiences. Polar-Palooza was made possible by support from NSF, and NASA's Science Mission Directorate, and in collaboration with Apple Computer, and was organized locally by the LSU Museum of Natural Science, thanks to a grant from the Irene W. and C. B. Pennington Foundation and the support of the LSU College of Science.
Together with colleagues from the Museum of Natural Science, or MNS, Warny was responsible for developing two of the more recent exhibits in the main hall. Her role as the curator of education for the museum is to build outreach programs that are tailored to promote ongoing research at LSU. She collaborated with several curators over the years, and these exhibits are the result of those partnerships. The Antarctic exhibit, opened in 2005, provides an in-depth look at the polar environment through the eyes of McMurdo base, where all scientific expeditions to the continent begin. As education curator, she is currently partnering with the LSU Athletic Department and the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine to create a new permanent exhibit on tigers and endangered species to celebrate LSU's mascot. The exhibit will be on display beginning summer 2011 at Alex Box Stadium and at the Museum of Natural Science.
Warny was also instrumental in assembling a traveling exhibit highlighting Louisiana's unique and rich Native American heritage. In conjunction with the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism's archaeology division, the exhibit showcases the cutting-edge archaeological and anthropological research being conducted at the university and around Louisiana. It includes information about Native American cooking, hunting, fishing and housing technology. The display also includes a comprehensive discussion of how Louisiana's prehistoric period can be interpreted in the ancient mounds scattered across Louisiana, including the 5,000-year-old LSU campus mounds and artifacts found throughout the state.
"Although combining the education program and the workload of a faculty member (teaching, research, graduate student mentoring and fund-raising) can be challenging at times, this dual appointment was definitely instrumental in building the skills I needed to obtain a CAREER Award," said Warny. "I am thankful to LSU for giving me this unique opportunity to compete nationally."
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