NSF CAREER Award recipient Andrew Nuss develops new … – Nevada Today

University of Nevada, Reno Assistant Professor Andrew Nuss was recently honored with a prestigious CAREER Award. Nuss is a faculty member in the Department of Agriculture, Veterinary and Rangeland Sciences within the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.

Nuss’s CAREER Award project, supported by a $1.17M award, aims to develop a better understanding of insect physiology and how insects use hormones and neurotransmitters, specifically looking at Lygus hesperus. Having greater comprehension of the insect’s physiology, Nuss said, may generate improved tactics to protect the food supply. 

“The CAREER Award recognizes the recipients’ early-career success and their potential: what they can do for their discipline, the scientific community, and the nation,” Mridul Gautam, the University’s Vice President for Research and Innovation, said. “It is wonderful to see the increasing notice of our faculty through this prestigious NSF program.”

Since 1996, 49 University faculty members have received a CAREER Award. Eight of those awards were given in 2021, the most ever in a single year, and seven awarded in 2022. In the 2023 cycle, Nuss is the University’s third CAREER Award recipient. Although the NSF publicizes a 17% success rate in proposals to this competitive program, University faculty have fared much better in recent years, with success rates, on average, around 25%.

Below, Nuss answers questions about his CAREER research, how he plans to integrate education and outreach into his project, his goals as a professor and his future career plans.

Can you describe the research your CAREER award will support?

This project will focus on insulin signaling in Lygus hesperus, the western tarnished plant bug, commonly called “Lygus bugs”. Most of us know insulin as a hormone to maintain proper blood sugar levels, but this and related insulin-like peptides have many additional roles in insects. This research will expand our knowledge of how insects use hormones and neurotransmitters to determine how to store energy, when to devote resources to growth and reproduction or to storage to survive winter months, and how to balance these needs with inevitable aging and death.

What are the real-world implications of this research? What do you hope to achieve?

The western tarnished plant bug is a pest of several crops, and a better understanding of its physiology may lead to improved strategies for the protection of our food supply. Also, much of what we know of insect physiology is based on the study of a handful of model insect species that are easy to work on in the lab. However, as we start to explore outside of these insects, it’s apparent that there are unique differences and nuances in other species. Studying Lygus bugs will help us understand some of these nuances among the vast diversity that exists within insects.

What spurred this area of research for you? How has it evolved?

This project evolved out of my interest in insect neuropeptides and a desire to improve agriculture in Nevada. Lygus bugs impact alfalfa, an important crop in Nevada for livestock, but also cause damage to many other crops, including cotton and strawberries. The more I learned about this pest, the more I became interested in how this insect can consume such a wide variety of plants (over 100 documented plant species) and how it reprocesses the food it eats for reproduction, diapause, movement, and other biological tasks.

Lygus hesperus, the western tarnished plant bug, is a pest of various crops.

How are you planning to integrate education and outreach into your CAREER project?

This project includes creating an insect physiology course at the University. Students will be challenged to design experiments to answer physiological questions brought up during the Lygus bug insulin research project. I also will develop outreach to farmers and the public describing the results of the research as well as principles of insect physiology. However, I believe that outreach is a two-way street, and I’m interested in hearing about the needs and questions of the public and farmers as well. In addition to outreach at field days and conventions, we are working with the Nevada Center for Surveys, Evaluation, and Statistics (CSES) to learn about the effectiveness of our engagement and what other topics are of interest. Furthermore, my lab regularly offers laboratory research opportunities for undergraduates, and I will recruit from the TRiO STEM Scholars program at the University, a program aimed at low-income, first-generation students. This is a prime opportunity to mentor these students seeking lab experience as part of a STEM- or health-related major degree.

How do you hope to have an impact on your students’ lives and futures as scientists?

My goal as a professor is to develop a connection between the students and science so that learning is not just an exercise in memorization but an experience that applies to their own lives and future careers. Science isn’t just something that happens in the lab but is available all around us if one has an open mind. I am also a committed mentor to students in my lab. Besides the technical training in laboratory techniques, I ask that every student joining the lab develop a resume or CV so that I can help guide them professionally for their career of interest. I’m proud of the students that graduated from my lab. I can’t entirely take credit for their success, but I do my best to cultivate the potential in each of them.

What’s next for you, your research, and your career?

I hope to keep expanding our knowledge of insect physiology, neuropeptides, and beyond. We are focusing on insulin-like peptides but there are many more neuropeptides whose function in Lygus bugs is unknown. While this is interesting for me to understand from a scientific perspective, I also continue to investigate how this knowledge can be applied to safely reduce pest damage to our cropping systems. This award will allow us to explore one aspect of physiology in this insect and fuel discoveries for explorations into new areas for years to come. I’m excited for what we discover next and where it leads!

In preparing his proposal, Nuss used proposal planning and review services provided by Research & Proposal Development Services, part of Research & Innovation. For proposal submission assistance, submit a request for research development services.

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