Going back to school: Nevada’s Jenny Ouyang travels for the birds

NSF grant funds University of Nevada, Reno research, expeditions, education about birds and urbanization

Jenny Ouyang (left) shows graduate student Valentina Alaasam (middle) and undergraduate Parker Grossman (right) one of the nest boxes located on the University campus.

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10/5/2017 | By: Patrick Hardin |

While some may cheer urban expansion, others are worried. One such person is biology Assistant Professor Jenny Ouyang, who decided to put her concerns to good use. With a $160,430 grant from the National Science Foundation, she is leading the University of Nevada, Reno's research into the effects urbanization has on animals, starting with the house wren.

Currently, 3 percent of the world is considered urban, though by 2050, that number will reach 5 percent. That 2 percent difference equates to 1.15 million square miles, or roughly the size of South Africa, and has sparked ecological concerns.

This research will take Ouyang to Princeton University, establishing another valuable partnership for the University, as she plans to work with Bridgett vonHoldt, a researcher who specializes in evolutionary genomics and ecological epigenomics.

Ouyang will spend up to a couple of months, twice a year, at Princeton learning the modern molecular genetic techniques required for this project. Ouyang is happy for the opportunity to return to where she earned her doctorate degree in ecology and evolutionary biology in 2012.

"I look forward to working with Bridgett, who came to Princeton after I left," Ouyang said.

Ouyang's work will observe how animals react and adapt to urban environments with an emphasis on their stress levels in that setting. She said one of the purposes of this research is to observe "how the natural stress response of some birds allows them to respond to factors such as light, noise, and pollution."

Her work has piqued the interests of major corporations, including Phillips Lighting, based in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. One aspect of her research involves under which types of lighting animals respond and thrive. Another organization taking note of her work is the National Forest Service, which is looking to upgrade their lighting to LED and save money with more energy-efficient bulbs.

Ouyang's research into birds has led her to start an outreach organization called Nestwatchers, with elementary school students at Mount Rose Elementary in Reno. The money from this grant will help provide logbooks and other supplies to students to observe birds, with the hope of sparking interest in science and nature at a young age.

Related Academic Programs

Her work into the effects of urbanization on birds is already underway on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. Nest boxes are set up at different parts of the campus, designed to provide cavity-nesting birds a place to establish their nests and allow researchers to observe the habits of the birds in the area. This, coupled with other nest boxes throughout the city of Reno, help show the difference between urban and rural birds.

Another location where the nest boxes have been set up is Caughlin Ranch, a residential area in West Reno. Each semester, Ouyang leads a bird walk with Caughlin Ranch residents to watch birds and observe the birds living in the nest boxes. These nest boxes, coupled with ones on the University campus, provide a great comparison between urban and suburban environments. Her next bird walk is this Saturday, Oct. 7.

The grant was awarded Sept. 12, 2017, for a two year period ending in August 2019. This grant is a part of the NSF'S effort to foster cooperation between universities and research centers to "learn new techniques, have access to sophisticated equipment, and shift their research focus in new directions," according to the NSF's website.

Ouyang is excited about her work that this grant funds, and is humbled by the magnitude of her work.

"I feel very privileged," she said. "It is very exciting the NSF has these types of grants. Though, I do feel the pressure and responsibility to produce research products."

Her work can help cities and communities map out further urbanization in the coming decades and will allow new insights into its effects on wildlife and the environment.

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