Pravosudov a rising star in biology faculty

3/7/2007 8:00:00 AM

Vladimir Pravosudov, an assistant biology professor, has a daunting research record. He has received eight federal grants, awards and research fellowships for his research. He has published 50 times in American and Russian scientific journals. And now, Pravosudov has been awarded two grants from the National Institutes of Health and one from the National Science Foundation to fund his latest projects.

The grant from NSF is funding Pravosudov $393,340 until 2010 and the grants from NIH are awarding him $568,013 until 2009 and $350,417 until 2009. According to biology department chair Jack Hayes, it is rare for one person to have three grants at one time.

"The funding available has been very low the last couple of years," Hayes said. "What he has accomplished with research funding is nothing short of amazing."

Pravosudov will be conducting projects that combine ecology, the study of animals' interactions with their environment, and neuroscience, the study of the nervous system, with a focus on memory. The research studies will also help to address broader questions about the evolution of memory mechanisms.

Pravosudov will be using food-caching birds—birds that store food and must find them later on—in all of his current projects.

"Dr. Pravosudov's projects are an insightful blend of ecology and neuroscience," Hayes said. "His research is of broad interest to ecologists, evolutionary biologists and biomedical researchers. It is a rare scientist whose work appeals to such a diverse audience."

The NSF grant is funding a research project focusing on the evolution of spatial memory and the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, using birds called black-capped chickadees, Pravosudov said. The project will also attempt to answer why some animals have better memory than others and whether advantages in memory are driven by evolution or by individual ecological experiences.

"I'll be looking at which processes control memory and how does it evolve," Pravosudov said. "It will help to understand why some species might have larger brains, large hippocampuses, and better memory than others."

Pravosudov said he will sample birds from several locations with different conditions ranging from milder southern areas to harsher northern environments to test if the environment has a strong impact on the evolution of memory and the brain.

In addition, he will raise the birds from different locations in the same laboratory conditions to see if their ability to find their food stores and the corresponding differences in the hippocampus are inherited.

"The project will ask about the evolution of spatial memory and the hippocampus and if environment is a critical component of it," Pravosudov said.

The first NIH project will address how social environment and interactions affect memory mechanisms and the brain using food-catching birds called mountain chickadees. Pravosudov said he will isolate some birds and leave others in various groups and observe if these groupings will affect how well they remember where they stored their food. Pravosudov will also observe how the birds' environment may affect neurobiological processes in the hippocampus.

According to Pravosudov, the project can be applicable to some memory abnormalities that humans encounter.

"We have normal socializing as adults, but when people get older, they become more isolated," Pravosudov said. "Can that affect memory health?"

The second NIH project will address if using memory is important for brain maintenance and if environment that favors extensive memory use also plays a role in maintaining a healthy memory and a healthy brain.

"Laboratory studies often involve environments that don't allow normal memory use," Pravosudov said. "The question is whether this is an important consideration when we design new lab studies."

Pravosudov said he is in the early stages of this newly funded research, the actual experiments of which will begin in the summer. He is currently recruiting post-doctorate, graduate and undergraduate students to assist him as well as acquiring equipment for the projects.

Pravosudov's past research has largely revolved around the same topics of ecology, neuroscience and animal behavior. Pravosudov has always been interested in birds and has been studying them his entire career. He was already helping professors and scientists with their research on birds at the University of Leningrad in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia at an early age.

When he was a zoology student at the University of Leningrad, his greatest curiosity involved predatory birds, until one fateful talk with his advisor.

"He said that there have to be more questions I could ask about birds," Pravosudov said. "That piece of advice shifted my entire career."

That shift in his career led him from St. Petersburg, to Siberia and ultimately to America, where he studied for his doctorate in zoology at the Ohio State University. Pravosudov worked and studied at such universities as Purdue University and UC Davis before coming to the University.

Pravosudov came to teach at the University in 2005. Seeking a permanent position, he applied to the University and to take advantage of Reno's ideal location, just an hour away from where Pravosudov studies his birds around Lake Tahoe.

"I'm living closer to the mountains so the school is good in terms of location," Pravosudov said. "I also have the means to do the research I want with the lab. It is more intimate here and they treat me well."

Hayes said Pravosudov met the criteria for the traits the department was looking for in a new professor, such as a demonstrated ability to be an enthusiastic teacher and an interest in conducting research.

"He has an excellent teaching record in animal behavior courses at UC Davis and has had a lot of publications and independent research funding already," Hayes said. "He was already a proven success in both teaching and research."

Pravosudov plans to stay at the University and conduct more research for quite some time. He has plans to involve students more in his work, combining the aspects of the importance of continual scientific research and teaching.

"Now he has the funding opportunity for students at all levels to be more involved in the research," Hayes said. "That's one of the great things about being a top research school; the experience is really different from learning in a classroom."

Pravosudov will continue his research on ecology and neuroscience , keeping in mind the importance of sharing his results with the rest of the world.

"Every study often brings more questions than answers," Pravosudov said. "Each new step leads to new paths; that's the beauty of science."


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