FIRST Award Recipient at UNO earns NSF CAREER Award

February 27, 2020

Ryan Wong, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and in the Neuroscience Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), has been selected to receive one of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) most prestigious awards for nascent scientists--from the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. 

Wong’s five-year $850,000 CAREER Award is among a handful designated across the nation this year; the honor recognizes faculty who possess “the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.” This CAREER Award will support Wong’s research into how certain stress coping styles (animal personality types) can limit learning and memory capabilities--to shed light on our underlying neurobiological and genetic mechanisms.

His CAREER Award also includes a required “outreach” component. Built into Wong’s plan are opportunities for UNO students and K-12 students in Omaha Public Schools to perform behavioral neurogenetics experiments, which will open doors to enhance scientific literacy and comprehension. Wong said one of the goals of the outreach portion of the grant will be to introduce fundamental principles of animal behavior, neuroscience and genetics to students through UNO’s NE STEM 4 U program, in which UNO students will design educational activities for after-school programs for Omaha Public Schools students.

According to the UNO Office of Research & Creative Activity, Wong is the first UNO professor to receive an NSF CAREER Award. As part of his preparation to pursue this honor, in 2017 Wong earned Nebraska EPSCoR’s rigorous FIRST Award--patterned after the CAREER Award format.

“Our annual FIRST Awards provide expert reviews plus $25,000 funding per recipient, helping Nebraska’s early-career researchers to better shape their CAREER proposals to federal funding agencies,” said Matt Andrews, Nebraska EPSCoR director and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) professor. Annual FIRST Awards are supported by NSF funding via EPSCoR "Track-1" projects (currently, Nebraska's OIA-1557417 / Center for Root & Rhizobiome Innovation), including broader impacts such as workforce development.  In 2019, entomologist Joe Louis and biochemist Rebecca Roston (both with UNL), were NSF CAREER Award recipients who “prepped for success” by earning Nebraska EPSCoR FIRST Awards along the way.

“This NSF CAREER grant will provide opportunities to help fill a knowledge gap through investigating and analyzing the underlying mechanisms that influence learning and memory,” Wong said. “We are only at the beginning stages of understanding the roles these underlying mechanisms play in cognitive constraints related to stress coping styles.”

Through understanding the neuroethological and neuromolecular mechanisms of learning and memory across stress coping styles, Wong and his team can gain fundamental insights into factors that can shape behaviors. Wong is eager to carry out this work, and the core mission of the NSF CAREER program.

“It charges people to find creative and effective ways of integrating research and education, and to also be able to communicate information to a broad audience,” Wong said. “I have always found it personally rewarding to find ways to convey complex ideas and concepts in a more digestible manner to students and nonscientists to foster budding scientists.”

Image: Ryan Wong, courtesy of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Ryan Wong, assistant professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a 2017 recipient of Nebraska EPSCoR's FIRST Award, earns 2020 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.