CSUMB professor wins National Science Foundation grant

Liz Alter

Liz Alter

March 2, 2022

By Mark C. Anderson

Elizabeth Alter, assistant professor in CSUMB’s Biology and Chemistry Department, has earned a major grant from the prestigious National Science Foundation.

The funds are earmarked to study evolutionary patterns that drive biodiversity, and also inform species conservation.

“The goal of this research is to better understand how evolution produces the amazing biodiversity we find on our planet, using rockfishes as a model system,” she said. “Understanding the processes that generate biodiversity is crucial for conserving and managing species over the long term.”

Alter calls rockfishes “an excellent model for studying the dynamics of diversification” because of their wildly varied qualities—they include more than 110 sister species who adapt shape, size and color to myriad habitats.

The grant will generate a number of benefits on and off campus.

It will help develop undergraduate research opportunities. It will cultivate the creation of a learning and mentoring community built around biodiversity and evolutionary genetics, readying Otters for careers in things like genomics and biotechnology. It will join with CSUMB's celebrated Scientific Illustration Certificate Program to create art spotlighting evolutionary processes and scientific work for the public. It will also support K-12 teacher training in evolutionary biology and research across Monterey County.

According to Alter, there aren’t many better locations for this work, which begins September 2022.

“CSUMB is an ideal place to carry out this research, because of its location in Monterey Bay, a hotspot for marine biodiversity, as well as the immense support on our campus for undergraduate research,” she says. “I am thrilled to be able to carry out this project here, which will train students to make fundamental scientific discoveries about our planet's biodiversity while helping to conserve it.”

Rep. Jimmy Panetta announced the grant last week. It will total $890,044, as part of the American Rescue Plan, also known as the COVID-19 Stimulus Package.

“CSUMB is becoming a leading institution for biodiversity and conservation research, and they deserve additional federal resources to educate the next generation of scientists, teachers and experts,” Panetta said in a statement. “This funding…will serve as a model for how the federal government can support local universities in their research and education efforts.”

He also noted how far its effects will reach: “The project will engage the undergraduate community, grow the pipeline of rural community STEM teachers, and expand our knowledge of different ecological species here on the Central Coast.”

This is CSUMB's first CAREER grant, a high-level NSF award that supports early-career faculty who can serve as role models and advance the missions of their organizations.  

Andrew Lawson, dean of the College of Science, helped put the grant in context.

"We greatly appreciate Congressman Panetta's support for the American Rescue Plan and the $600M in funding that was allocated to the National Science Foundation to help respond to and recover from the COVID pandemic,” he said.