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Biology Professor Receives National Science Foundation Grant

Dr. Alyssa Stark's $480,927 NSF grant will support her research on how environmental factors affect the performance, behavior and morphology of biological organisms.

Alyssa Stark, PhD, assistant professor of Biology

VILLANOVA, Pa. - The National Science Foundation has awarded a $480,927 grant to Alyssa Stark, PhD, assistant professor of Biology in Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to support her research on how environmental factors affect the performance, behavior and morphology of biological organisms.

The project, “RUI: Functional morphology and ecological implications of ant adhesion in the tropical forest canopy,” will seek to quantify the functional morphology of ant adhesion and relate it to the ecology and behavior of tropical arboreal (tree-dwelling) ants. Dr. Stark will be co-principal investigator on the project, collaborating with Steve Yanoviak, PhD, Tom Wallace Endowed Chair of Conservation, University of Louisville.

Functional morphology involves the study of relationships between the structure of an organism and the function of its various parts. Wingless arboreal ants must grip solid objects as they forage meters above the ground. Preliminary results show that ants can support adhesive loads thousands of times their body weight, yet they fall from rainforest canopies at high frequency.

Dr. Stark and her research team will take advantage of field sites in Panama and Peru to collect data on over 100 species of ants, providing the first comprehensive evaluation of adhesive morphology, performance and behavior in any taxa to date.

“The results of this work will advance our understanding of the evolution of ant adhesion, and how this key innovation may impact ecology and behavior of one of the most dominant players in the tropical forest,” Dr. Stark said.

The project will be carried out at Villanova University and will provide research training and experiences for Villanova undergraduate and masters level students. At least six Villanova undergraduate students and one graduate student will assist Dr. Stark.

“Dr. Stark is a truly dedicated teacher-scholar, and this will be an outstanding collaborate research opportunity for the College’s undergraduate and graduate students in Biology,” said Adele Lindenmeyr, PhD, dean, Villanova University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This award from the National Science Foundation recognizes the importance of her research.”

Dr. Stark’s research has been published in more than 30 academic journals, including Journal of Experimental Biology, Integrative and Comparative Biology and Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. Dr. Stark received her PhD in Integrated Bioscience from the University of Akron.

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.