KU News: KU ecology and evolutionary biology professor receives NSF CAREER Award

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Contact: Heather Anderson, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, 785-864-3667, [email protected], @KUCollege

KU ecology and evolutionary biology professor receives NSF CAREER Award

LAWRENCE – Kelly Matsunaga, assistant curator of paleobotany and Thomas N. Taylor Assistant Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation.

The grant, which totals over $946,000, will fund research and education on how conifers, including the tallest and longest-lived organisms, have evolved over the last 300 million years in response to a changing planet. Conifers include pines, junipers and redwoods.

“We are thrilled for Dr. Matsunaga and the recognition her groundbreaking research is receiving,” said Arash Mafi, executive dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at KU. “Her innovative approach and exceptional contributions to her field align perfectly with our mission to foster excellence and drive progress in scientific inquiry.”

The researchers — a team of undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs — will work with information on living species and the extensive fossil records of conifers. This information will be used to reconstruct evolutionary relationships, investigate evolutionary dynamics throughout time and test hypotheses on conifer reproductive organ evolution.

“The award means I have the freedom to pursue a new and exciting research agenda that I’ve been dreaming up for the last few years and the opportunity to teach a course on my favorite subject,” Matsunaga said.

The project combines several outreach components, implementing a new course in the College and a museum exhibition.

“The CAREER will allow us to offer a new research-based course on plant anatomy and development and will also create new research opportunities for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral scholars,” Matsunaga said. “In addition, we will develop a new exhibit in the KU Natural History Museum based on this research.”

The award is the NSF’s most prestigious award for early-career faculty, providing support as they guide advancement in their departments and act as academic role models in the research and education landscapes. The annual award’s grant continues over a five-year span.

Matsunaga’s research group studies the evolutionary history of plants using approaches that span the fields of evolutionary biology, paleontology and developmental biology. When she was a graduate student, Matsunaga’s work was funded by a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation and recognized through multiple awards, including the Isabel Cookson award from the Botanical Society of America and John Dorr Award from the University of Michigan. Matsunaga joined the KU faculty in 2020.

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