The National Science Foundation selected Texas A&M University’s recent graduate Rachel Short, Ph.D., to receive a 2020 Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology. Short will use the opportunity to further her mammal research.

woman standing over a cart with a computer and a mammal leg fossil in her hand
Rachel Short, Ph.D., takes measurements of a mammal fossil in the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections at Texas A&M University. (Texas A&M photo)

Short’s Fellowship project hinges on crucial findings from her dissertation, which was focused on the methodology used in assessing changes in functional traits of mammals over time.

“For my dissertation, I developed a new method using the ankle bones to study this community change,” she explained. “This NSF project is the application of that new technique and looking at the processes that caused these changes.”

Short’s research contributes to the growing field of conservation paleobiology, which aims to use knowledge of the past to make informed predictions about the future of Earth’s threatened biodiversity. The fossil record provides critical information to researchers, conservationists, and managers on past biological responses to environmental changes.

Her work will enable more informed predictions of how mammal communities will respond in the future so that conservation efforts and maintenance of ecosystem function can be more targeted and cost effective. 

Collaborating with experts across the globe

Short began her two-year position on Sept. 1. During her fellowship, she will work primarily under Michelle Lawing, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology at Texas A&M. Lawing is a quantitative paleobiologist and will serve as Short’s primary mentor during her fellowship.

“I am pleased to have Dr. Rachel Short as an NSF postdoctoral fellow in my lab,” Lawing said. “The NSF postdoctoral fellowship is a highly competitive, national fellowship. Her award indicates the importance and innovation in Rachel’s past research accomplishments and in the new work she proposed for her fellowship.”

Short will be co-mentored by Jenny McGuire, Ph.D., a conservation paleobiologist and a leader in spatial paleoecological methods at the School of Biological Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology. Also involved with the project are Johannes Müller, Ph.D., professor of paleozoology at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, and Jill Zarestky, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Education at Colorado State University.

Her research will be funded through NSF’s competitive area of “Interdisciplinary Research Using Biological Collections” through Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

Examining changes in biodiversity of mammals over time

Short will be investigating how mammalian community assemblages form through time and the impact of anthropogenic effects on the structure of those mammalian communities.

“I use functional traits, features like body size, tooth height and shapes of ankle bones, to look at how those features in mammal communities have changed through time as the environment has changed or as human impacts have affected land use,” Short explained.

She said these traits allow her and her colleagues to use the fossil record to get a better understanding of how mammalian communities respond to environmental change.

“This research design integrates museum collections with online databases to explore ecological and evolutionary processes driving trait-environment relationships in the late Cenozoic,” Short writes.

Short will investigate fossils from ancient species at a variety of different natural history collections across the globe.

In addition to collecting data at the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, an asset of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, Short will travel to The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and to Berlin, Germany, pending restrictions surrounding COVID-19.

There she will study under Müller for six weeks at Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin’s natural history museum, developing skills in a new method.

“Instead of doing straight linear measurements on bones, like I’ve done in the past, I’ll be working under Dr. Müller, learning how to do 3D measurements on the specimens,” Short said.

Improving science outreach

Another primary component of Short’s mammal research program will be contributing to efforts aimed at enhancing informal STEM learning opportunities.  

“Informal STEM learning happens outside of the standard classroom and can provide meaningful engagement for broad public audiences to increase conservation knowledge and improve conservation practices,” Lawing said. “Rachel proposes to advance both disciplines with collections-based work.”

Short plans to use field stations as primary vehicles for sharing science with public audiences.

“Field stations are only recently recognized as sites of informal STEM learning,” Short wrote in the proposal. “But with nearly 400 field stations in the U.S., they have great potential to provide place-based education.”

During her doctoral program, Short helped conceive and write an NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning grant with a team of researchers, which included Lawing, Zaretsky and lead investigator Rhonda Struminger, Ph.D., assistant professor of practice in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology.

The team aimed to develop a network of field stations and document informal STEM learning opportunities at approximately 200 sites across the nation.  

One of those sites is the Ecology and Natural Resource Teaching Area, also known as the Range Area, a biological teaching and research station at Texas A&M.

During her fellowship, Short will continue this work with her previous collaborators to develop outreach materials for the field stations, including the Range Area and others across the U.S.  

“I plan to take the results of my study on mammalian communities and translate those into educational materials for biological field stations that I worked with previously in my dissertation,” Short explained.

She said these materials will engage field-station visitors and provide evidence that the space they’re visiting hasn’t always looked the way it does today. She hopes these materials will help public audiences better understand changes in biodiversity of animals in that area over time. 

To contact Short about her research with biological collections and mammalian communities, email [email protected].

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