U-Idaho’s David Tank Receives NSF Career Award

Monday, March 25 2013

MOSCOW, Idaho – David Tank, assistant professor of plant systematics, has been awarded a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. The $799,959 award will support Tank’s research for the next five years, fund the development of an advanced field botany course and facilitate collaboration with University of Idaho McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS) faculty and graduate students to incorporate botany education into programs at the campus.

“This award is a confirmation of the leadership role the University of Idaho is playing in STEM fields,” said College of Natural Resources Dean Kurt Pregitzer. “Dave’s work is groundbreaking and will greatly further our understanding of evolutionary processes.”

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award is among the NSF’s most prestigious awards. Its purpose is to support junior faculty who are early in their careers and exemplify the role of teacher-scholars by combining outstanding research with excellent educational initiatives.

Tank’s research focuses on using molecular methods to reconstruct the evolutionary history of plants and to investigate the patterns and processes that shape plant biodiversity.

“If you want to start a fight in a room of evolutionary biologists, bring up the topic of species concepts,” Tank said. “This has been one of the most controversial discussions in my field for over 50 years.”

Tank said that evolutionary biologists have proposed many different species concepts over the years, each with its own explicit?criterion for recognizing, “what is arguably the fundamental unit in biology – the species.”

The NSF-funded study seeks to understand how the evidence for speciation has accumulated over time using the plant genus Castilleja as a model system. Castilleja – or the paintbrushes – are among the most emblematic groups of wildflowers in the west with more than 100 species distributed throughout western North America, but taxonomically, they are extremely challenging and notoriously difficult to identify.

“To my knowledge, there have been no studies that empirically evaluate the accumulation of species properties across time scales in an evolutionary context,” said Tank.

“This study will provide the framework necessary to create a stable and useful classification for the paintbrushes that will aid in species identification, future discovery and conservation. It will increase our understanding of the process of speciation in the heterogeneous mountains of western North America.”

The NSF award will also support the integration of education and training across multiple sub-disciplines in the biodiversity sciences and across multiple educational levels, from elementary school students to postdoctoral scholars. The advanced field botany course will fill a growing need for botanical expertise in federal land management and science agencies, while the programs at MOSS will ensure that botanical knowledge reaches elementary students.
Tank joined the U-Idaho College of Natural Resources in 2008 following postdoctoral research at Yale. He is also the director of the University of Idaho Stillinger Herbarium, which houses a collection of more than 200,000 specimens representing an archive of the diversity of Idaho's plants, lichens and fungi. The collection is an international resource for research on the flora of Idaho and the Pacific Northwest.
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