MSU’s Folk receives prestigious NSF CAREER award for groundbreaking hybridization research

Contact: Sarah Nicholas

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Ryan A. Folk, assistant professor in Mississippi State’s Department of Biological Sciences, is the recipient of a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program award from the National Science Foundation.

Ryan A. Folk
Ryan A. Folk (Photo by Robby Lozano)

Folk, receiving $500,000 for research into hybridization, joins four biological sciences faculty who together have secured almost $4 million in the past few years through the program. Including this funding, the department currently is managing the most competitive federal funding in its history. The CAREER program—one of the most sought-after opportunities offered by the NSF--provides five-year awards to tenure-track faculty in the initial stages of teaching and research.

Also the MSU herbarium curator, Folk’s cutting-edge research into hybridization—the flow of genetic information between species—pursues an understanding of how changing seasonal climates and insect pollination may be affecting the process. The multi-year study is titled “Hybridization and radiation: Integrating across phylogenomics, ancestral niche evolution, and pollination biology.”

“Hybridization is an important source of biodiversity in plants, but scientists lack a clear understanding of why it is less important in other organisms, such as many animals.” said Folk, whose research will use the common landscaping plant ‘Heuchera’—commonly known as alumroot or coral bells. “Understanding why some organisms hybridize frequently but others do not may relate to fundamentally different evolutionary strategies between plants and other organisms, but to study this is challenging and requires the investigation of hybridization in different environments both in ancient and modern times.”

Folk’s CAREER award also will introduce data science training into the classroom through hands-on coursework, summer lab experiences, high school teacher workshops and training of graduate students in data science.

A native of Akron, Ohio, Folk uses genomic and bioinformatic techniques to document the origins of plant diversity from evolutionary and ecological perspectives using a variety of plant groups and habitats. His work is based in MSU’s herbarium, which houses approximately 38,000 vascular plant specimens from around the world with an emphasis on the Southeastern U.S.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Akron and a Ph.D. in evolution, ecology, and organismal biology from Ohio State University.

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