Jenny Ouyang, associate professor in the College of Science’s Department of Biology grew up in Xi’an, a large, brightly lit city in China. According to Ouyang, by 2025, over 80% of the world’s population will live under light polluted skies, which raises concern for human and wildlife wellbeing. Her background and the increased light pollution around the world continue to inspire her interest in urban ecology and a desire to build greener cities.
Ouyang has received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award grant of $1.2 million to research the growing issue of light pollution and the effects of artificial lighting in the night skies on birds and avian offspring. Throughout her research, she will integrate an education plan to train the next generation of young scientists, particularly underrepresented students.
Ouyang has earned several research grants and fellowships throughout her career, including a $420,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health for her research on neurosensory function in response to light pollution. She has also earned several research, travel and teaching awards.
Please describe the research your CAREER award will support.
Currently, over 65% of the world’s population live under light pollution, with artificial light raising night sky luminance by over 10% of natural lighting levels. By 2025, over 80% of the world’s population will live under light polluted skies, which raises concern for human and wildlife wellbeing. This project will investigate how different colors of night lighting affect the health and behavioral rhythms of wild birds. It will also test how night light affects avian offspring. Lastly, an integrated educational plan seeks to train the next generation of young scientists.
What is the goal of your CAREER project?
The proposed project will: 1) provide tangible outcomes through outreach to the community, 2) provide critical information for addressing light pollution, and 3) contribute significant educational outcomes, particularly for underrepresented students. Project results will enhance scientific and technological understanding by converting light data into the index used by light engineers, which will inform engineers about artificial light sources that are most eco-friendly. In turn, the research will benefit society by informing public policy on the biological effects of light pollution. I will collaborate with Philips lighting company to develop light boxes as an educational tool for elementary schools. Additionally, the education plan contains a partnership with Sierra Nevada Journeys to develop an “ALAN (artificial light at night) and clocks” station for family STEM nights, reaching a broader audience of families, teachers, and administrators. Together, the findings of this project and the educational programs cohesively tackle an environmental pressure that is of growing societal and scientific concern.
What inspired you to pursue this research? How has it evolved?
I grew up in the city of Xi’an, a large city in China with a population of almost 13 million people. When I visited in 2018, I was astounded by how much had changed in a span of five years. The city was lit up 24/7 with new construction and blinding lights. Growing up in Xi’an and seeing how other cities develop initiated my interest in urban ecology and building “greener” cities. I am an integrative physiologist and interested in how animals adapt to changing environmental conditions. Urbanization is one of the most rapid, directional land-use changes globally. I was grateful for the opportunity to join Dr. Mike Webster’s COBRE at UNR, which propelled my research in clock genes and neurosensory function in collaboration with Dr. Yong Zhang. The results of that work fueled my desire to understand more about how circadian rhythms, behavior, and fitness are affected by city lights.
What are the real-world implications of this research? What do you hope to achieve?
Cycles of light are a fundamental component of natural environments, but over the last half century, electric lighting has inundated the world with ALAN. The experiments proposed in this project will provide concrete information about the type of light sources that are most eco-friendly, allowing city-planners and developers to adapt night-time lighting. The education plan seeks to mentor and train the next generation of scientists. We will develop light-boxes in conjunction with Nest-Watchers to use at local elementary schools and work with Sierra Nevada Journeys to develop a “ALAN and clocks” station for STEM nights. The Fledge program for undergraduate research in my laboratory is based on a scaffold research experience that will train underrepresented students in STEM research. With the integration of research and education, I hope to provide solutions to a world that is increasingly experiencing a loss of night.
What impact will your project/research have in your field, biological sciences?
ALAN profoundly disrupts the temporal organization of light cycles, and the growing diversity of electric lights also provides light with spectra different from any natural light. It is clear from decades of research that light is the most important time cue for the regulation of circadian rhythms. Growing evidence also suggests that light pollution causes physiological disruption and pathology. However, the molecular mechanisms that cause these downstream effects remain unclear. This project will test whether short-wavelength ALAN reduces fitness through circadian disruption. We will combine field and laboratory experiments to test the effects of nocturnal lighting with modified spectra on behavior, physiology, reproduction, and gene expression. By uncovering the mechanisms underlying responses to artificial light, we will be able to measure, predict and ameliorate potential harmful effects of light pollution, especially because the disruptive effects vary depending on the spectral composition of light. Merging genetic, mechanistic, and behavioral approaches is a way forward to uncover the proximate as well as ultimate consequences of light pollution.
What’s next for you, your research and your career?
I am very excited to embark on this project, not only because of scientific inquiry but also because of the education plan for training the next generation of scientists and problem solvers. I want to continue studying urban ecology with the hope that my work will contribute to creative and innovative methods to help our changing planet. I feel very lucky to be at UNR, with a network of the best people in the world to help tackle questions from genotype to phenotype. I want to thank all my students and postdocs and the Evol Doers lab group who have contributed to ideas and data in developing this project, and I wish to continue mentoring and working with an enthusiastic team. I am grateful to the Integrative Neuroscience and Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation graduate programs, the office of Research and Innovation, the Department of Biology, the College of Science, and all the field site coordinators (Caughlin Ranch, Idlewild Park, City of Reno, Green’s Feed, UNR Main Station Farm) for their constant support. I can’t imagine a better place to pursue this research and a better team of people to work with.