North Central News

Biology professor earns prestigious grant from National Science Foundation

Laura Pohl

Mar 11, 2022

Early Career Grant funding totals $714,000

A multifaceted grant proposal to support faculty-student research and prepare students for careers in botany and similar fields garnered major funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Joanna Weremijewicz, assistant professor of biology, was awarded an NSF Early Career Grant of $714,000 to fund three large-scale research experiments over the next five years. Primarily, she will investigate how below ground networks of fungi that interconnect plant roots affect the invasion of Canada Thistle, considered to be the worst weed in the United States, in native tall grass prairies.

The grant will support faculty-student research and prepare students for careers in botany and similar fields.

Early Career Grants are designed for faculty who have not yet earned tenure, often teaching at research institutions. “This grant asks you to be a teacher-scholar,” said Weremijewicz. “One of my main goals is to transform the curriculum to be more plant science-based.” 

She contends that the public in general suffers from “plant blindness,” which means they are largely oblivious to the benefits of plants to themselves and the environment. There’s also a shortage of botanists, experts in the scientific study of plants.

Some of the research funded by the grant will take place at North Central, in a prairie restoration area near the DuPage River. Other research sites include the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and the University of North Carolina, where Weremijewicz will study bioinformatics and Next Generation DNA Sequencing during her sabbatical. 

The funding includes support for new equipment, a full-time lab technician for six months each year, student summer research stipends of $6,000, and housing for four North Central students. One high school student each summer will also have the opportunity to conduct research and receive a stipend. Weremijewicz also collaborated with North Central’s department of education to include a proposal for professional development for high school teachers. Jon Mueller, professor of psychology, assisted with developing learning outcomes. 

On a larger scale, scores of North Central students will benefit from Weremijewicz’ work in curriculum development as part of the grant. Students in introductory courses like 100-level Environmental Science and 200-level Ecology, along with upper level courses, will benefit from high-impact practice as they are immersed in hands-on experiences with plant science research. 

Representatives of the NSF were so impressed with the proposal that it was accepted on the first submission—a rarity. “That speaks volumes to the quality of work and the proposal Joanna was able to submit; it’s a great accomplishment,” said Shelly Galasso ’05, director of the Office of Sponsored Research and Programs. We hope Joanna is leading the pack and this is the first of many NSF research grants to come.”