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USU Ecologist Susannah French Receives Prestigious NSF CAREER Award

Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014

USU faculty member Susannah French in the Galapagos Islands

During a recent visit to the Galápagos Islands, USU physiological ecologist Susannah French holds an iguana. French is a 2014 recipient of the National Science Foundation's prestigious Faculty Early Career Development 'CAREER’ Award.

a side-blotched lizard

French is studying the effects of human disturbance on the side-blotched lizard, a reptile found in abundance in the deserts of western North America. Photo courtesy of Susannah French.

Recently returned from a study trip to the Galápagos Islands, Utah State University ecologist Susannah French is nursing a rather nasty knee injury. But a few stitches fail to dampen her enthusiasm.

“Visits to the Galápagos — that incredibly pristine site of diverse species that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the 19th century — remind me of why I got into science,” says French, who joined USU’s Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center as an assistant professor in 2009.

A physiological ecologist, French studies the effects of human-induced changes on varied species, and a significant award brings her closer to home to study the American Southwest’s ubiquitous side-blotched lizard.

French is the recipient of a 2014 Faculty Early Career Development ‘CAREER’ Award from the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s top grant program for early career development of junior faculty, CAREER Awards are given in recognition of demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and the integration of education and research.

“We’re thrilled that Susannah has received this highly competitive and well-deserved award,” says Jim MacMahon, trustee professor and dean of USU’s College of Science. “Susannah is making significant research achievements and creating meaningful learning opportunities for her students.”

The CAREER award provides French with five years of funding to support her ecological and physiological research exploring environmental effects on the side-blotched lizard. Known to scientists as Uta stansburiana, the reptile, which grows up to six inches in length and can survive up to seven years in northern populations, is found throughout the deserts of the western United States and Mexico.

“The lizard has a very large range for a single species, so it makes a very good model for this type of research,” French says. “This project will concentrate on lizards in southern Utah, which will make it easier for USU students to participate.”

The USU scientist says she and her team will examine whether environmental changes, included those caused by human disturbances, result in modifications to the lizards’ stress responsiveness, reproductive success and immune function.

“These little guys are very territorial and have variable life-spans across their range, so it’s actually possible to track individuals,” French says. “You can mark a lizard, leave, return and reliably find them in the same place. This allows us to monitor the lifetime reproduction of individuals.”

She says the ways in which reptiles such as the side-blotched lizard regulate and maintain key life-history processes, in the face of a changing environment, are not well understood.

“We’ll use an integrative approach to examine how these organisms cope with costly, competing demands,” French says. “Through our work in the field and in the lab, we’ll integrate endocrine, immune, behavioral and energetic techniques to investigate physiological interactions and determine the role energy plays in regulating these interactions.”

The lizards are so abundant in the arid West, residents may think increasing human development has little impact on the small creatures.

“Lizards play an important role in Earth’s ecosystems and play critical roles as both predator and prey species,” French says. “By studying reptiles, we learn a lot about the environmental health of our world and how species adapt to environmental changes.”

Related links:

Contact: Susannah French, 435-797-9175,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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