NASA funds climate research of biology professor, students

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Insignia

The country's preeminent space agency is investing in the work of a George Fox University biology professor – and students in the school's biology major will benefit.

Don Powers, who has spent more than 30 years studying avian science, received an $180,000 grant this year from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for a research project designed to shed light on climate change. The money will fund his research and include trips to the southwest United States, Mexico and South America for data collection. The grant also allows him to employ the help of students on the trips.

Powers, who has taught at George Fox for 23 years, said the research grant is the largest ever given to the school’s biology department.

Biology Professor Don Powers showing research equipment to a biology major

“This speaks not only to the quality of our education but to George Fox’s commitment to academic scholarship,” Powers said. “Research like this is part of the development of the science program here at GFU. As a scientist, it’s my job to be out in the field and doing the science that I teach. Many science textbooks are five years out of date when they get published. That makes this kind of research and our work in the field critical if we are to teach cutting-edge science in our classrooms.”

Powers is part of a four-member team conducting a four-year study, “Combining Remote-Sensing and Biological Data to Predict the Consequences of Climate Change on Hummingbird Diversity.” The project, which received $1.4 million in total from NASA, entails the study of hummingbird populations for the purpose of determining how these populations respond to climate change in specified locales of North and South America.

According to the proposal, hummingbirds, a diverse monophyletic family of birds, provide an ideal system for evaluating the effects of environmental changes on biological diversity because hummingbirds are highly sensitive to climate and weather and are pioneer indicators of climate change.

With an additional contribution from George Fox, Powers will receive $250,000 for his role as the project’s physiologist. He will be responsible for measuring (and advising the measurement of) physiological parameters associated with hummingbird energetics. Essentially, he will monitor energy expenditure in the birds – and determine if changes in foraging habits and migratory patterns impact their daily energetic costs. The research includes use of a thermal imaging camera to analyze their nighttime metabolic rate.

Hummingbirds are highly sensitive to climate and weather and are pioneer indicators of climate change. Serving as lead on the project is Catherine Graham, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stonybrook University in New York. Team members also include Susan Wethington, executive director of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, an international organization based in Arizona that monitors the birds’ population and migration trends, and Scott Goetz of the Woods Hole Research Center, an organization that studies, models, maps and monitors the Earth’s land surface to define solutions for sustainable well being.

The scientists propose to combine time-series data for hummingbirds with climate and remote sensing data to evaluate what changes have occurred in hummingbird populations, according to their proposal. They will investigate how climatic variation affects hummingbird resources, distribution, and physiological response to develop predictive models that can forecast how hummingbird populations will respond to anticipated changes in their physical environment.

“This has ramifications that go far beyond hummingbirds and their habitats,” Powers said. “It will help provide us with a better understanding of how our climate is changing and how species are coping and reacting to those changes. This is one piece of a bigger jigsaw puzzle, if you will. The data we collect from this ‘piece’ will help us better define major scientific principles in regards to our global climate.”