NSF awards almost $1 million to WSU biologist

  • Dr. Tom Luhring, Wichita State researcher and assistant professor in biology, earned the prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. 
  • The five-year award will fund Luhring's research on how drying and warming affects aquatic systems, as well as the flora and fauna that live in those waterbodies. 
  • Wichita Public School students will play an integral role in collecting samples and conducting research.

In an alternate universe, Tom Luhring’s interest in biology might have led him to a career in medicine, where he would be working indoors at a medical office or hospital.  
“I am a first-gen student, so I thought if you liked biology, you have to be a medical doctor,” Luhring said. “It wasn't until I started to take some classes that I saw that there were other career paths. When I took herpetology, I realized that I could work with frogs, salamanders, snakes and turtles — and actually do that for a living. That was the moment for me when I was finally passionate about doing something as opposed to just feeling like I have to make a living.” 
That passion helped Luhring, assistant professor of biology at Wichita State University, secure nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of drying and warming on aquatic systems, such as lakes, rivers and streams, and how these changes impact the waterbodies themselves and the organisms that dwell within them. 
Luhring’s award is part of the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER), which according to the NSF’s website, “Supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.”  
Dr. Tom LuhringLuhring said that typically, when researchers look at how ecosystems function, they're interested in the flow of materials across different systems or different groups — from plants to animals or from water to the plankton that's in the water. This usually takes only two or three elements into consideration — “carbon, nitrogen and maybe phosphorus,” he said.  
“Organisms are made of about 20 or so elements, and we generally haven't considered how the balance of all these things works together. That's what this project is doing: integrating multiple elements as they respond to the refilling of dried waterbodies and different temperatures, and the effects that this has on organisms living in them,” Luhring said.  
His research will focus on intermittent aquatic systems — for waterbodies that dry up and refill.  
“In Kansas, 70-80% of all the streams, pools, ponds and rivers that are natural in Kansas dry out and refill regularly. When a wetland dries and refills, that completely changes the chemistry of the water. The elements that are in the water are very different than a system that stays wet all the time. But generally, most of our knowledge on the elemental composition of waterbodies is based on systems that are full all the time,” Luhring said.  
Part of his research will involve working with high school students from Wichita Public Schools.  
“This specific award is designed for recipients to develop as a teacher-scholar,” Luhring said. “You're supposed to have an intentional link between your research and teaching. My project works with USD 259 and their drive to address next-generation science standards, particularly around quantitative reasoning.” 
The CAREER award financially supports high school teachers through mentored joint curriculum development so students at four USD 259 schools — North, Northwest, Southeast and Heights high schools — will be able to enroll in Field Ecology at their schools while simultaneously earning college credit at Wichita State.  
“Not only do they get to go into the field and do some field research and gather real data that they get to use, but they're also going to get college credit,” Luhring said.

Creating hands-on opportunities for students 

Molly Russell, a first-year WSU graduate student in biological sciences, said that she was drawn to the project because it intersected with some of her undergraduate interests: how amphibians and reptiles react to climate change impacts. 
“I also have a bit of experience working in aquatic systems with variable nutrient concentrations because that was always a big focus back home as harmful algal blooms were a pretty pervasive issue in Lake Erie every year,” said Russell, whose hometown is Aurora, Ohio. “The blooms damaged local ecosystems and caused many problems for the humans, flora and fauna living nearby.”  
She also said working with high school students and teaching them about research and ecology was another interesting aspect of the project.   
“I like the fact that a large part of this plan is to promote ecological studies, fieldwork and opportunities among historically underrepresented students – another topic I am especially passionate about and have found myself advocating for as well,” Russell said.  
Parker Binns — who hails from Leoti, Kansas — earned his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Wichita State in spring 2024, and he’ll now be working with Luhring as a graduate student. Binns said the NSF award creates extensive opportunities for a broad range of students and researchers.   
“Students pursuing higher education will gain funding and skills to help reach their goals,” Binns said. “Within the Wichita school district, lessons will be developed through this award to teach the next generations the importance of STEM careers and inspire students to pursue these careers. The research topic is also important. The impacts of climate change on aquatic ecosystems may be better understood and that research can then be applied to help the ecosystem.” 
Including high school students in this research will help build foundations of inclusivity and create an environment where diverse minds can come together and share knowledge. 
“The ecological field is historically underrepresented – both in terms of secondary education and professional careers,” Russell said. “This award places ecological education and engagement among high school students at the forefront, underscoring the pillars of scientific excellence. Scientific advancement depends on creativity; that creativity emerges from diversity; and the advantages of diversity are ultimately realized through inclusion.” 
Earlier in his career, Luhring remembers hearing about professors in his department and colleagues in the field earning NSF awards, and it was inspirational.  
“I just remember it being a huge deal,” he said. “It's pretty humbling to receive the same reward as a lot of those researchers that I really respect such as Holly Moeller (UCSB).” 

About Wichita State University

Wichita State University is Kansas' only urban public research university, enrolling more than 23,000 students between its main campus and WSU Tech, including students from every state in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. Wichita State and WSU Tech are recognized for being student centered and innovation driven.

Located in the largest city in the state with one of the highest concentrations in the United States of jobs involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Wichita State University provides uniquely distinctive and innovative pathways of applied learning, applied research and career opportunities for all of our students.

The Innovation Campus, which is a physical extension of the Wichita State University main campus, is one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing research/innovation parks, encompassing over 120 acres and is home to a number of global companies and organizations.

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