Monthly Update From the Vice Provost for Research and Economic Development


Anthropologist Part of International Team That Identified New Human Ancestor

A composite skeleton of Homo Naledi is surrounded by some of the hundreds of other fossil fragments recovered from the Rising Star cave in South Africa. Photo courtesy of Robert Clark/National Geographic

Biological anthropologist Lucas Delezene is part of the international team of scientists who verified that fossils found in a South African cave belong to a new species of human ancestor.

The National Geographic Society and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, announced the discovery of the new species –Homo naledi – on Sept. 10. The U of A has a partnership with Wits University and researchers here have been working on the project since the fossils were found in 2013.

Over the last two years, Delezene, assistant professor of anthropology in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and expert on hominin dental anatomy, compared known hominid teeth to the newly discovered fossils to determine if they represent a new scientific discovery.

Delezene said the conclusions of the dental analysis matched the results from teams that analyzed other anatomical regions of the fossils like the feet, hands, and heads.

“We were all in agreement that the fossils are different than anything found previously,” he said.



Researchers to Lead Interdisciplinary Effort to Train Teachers in Computer Science

Earlier this year, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed Act 187 into law, requiring computer science courses to be taught at all Arkansas public high schools and charter schools. Photo by AnneDella Hines, College of Engineering, University of Arkansas

Computer science and engineering researchers in the College of Engineering will use a nearly $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to lead an interdisciplinary team of educators who will train and certify Arkansas school teachers in computer science education.  

Over the next three years, Training Arkansas Computing Teachers, or TACT, will prepare 50 Arkansas teachers for licensure to teach the new advanced placement computer science principles course, introducing high school students to basic computer programming and applications.
The program’s goal is to increase student awareness and interest in computer-related professions.

“Until June of this year, fewer than one out of every 10 Arkansas public schools offered computer sciences courses, and the state had no process in place to certify teachers in this area,” said Dale R. Thompson, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering. “This grant and program will make that happen and ensures that these courses will be taught in every Arkansas public high school and charter school.”



Astrophysicists Receive NASA Grants for Venus, Mars, Titan Research

Courtesy NASA

Researchers at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences have received three NASA grants totaling more than $1 million to study conditions on Venus, Mars and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
The grants focus on the study of surface liquids and volatile compounds on the unique planetary environments.

The Mars study has implications for the availability of water, and ultimately habitability, on the planet.

The Titan study could help scientists better understand the hydrological processes, and ultimately habitability, of a place without water. 

Though the Venus study has few astrobiological implications, it will add to the small number of research projects that have been done on a planet of approximately the same size and as Earth.

Vincent Chevrier, an assistant research professor in the Center for Space and Planetary Sciences, also recently received a $465,000 NASA grant for a four-year project to study whether microbes from Earth can survive in Martian conditions.




Geoscientist Receives NSF Grant to Track Climate Change Through Tree Rings

One tree species David Stahle will concentrate on in his study is the Brazil nut tree, which is suitable for research because it is widespread and exhibits annual growth rings.

Geosciences researchers have received a grant to develop the first multicentury tree-ring chronologies in the Amazon River basin to help build a historical record of climate change in one of the most ecologically diverse areas on Earth.

David Stahle, a Distinguished Professor of geosciences in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, will lead the three-year project. Song Feng, a professor of geosciences who studies climate modeling and change, is the project’s co-researcher. The work is funded by a $418,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

“The Amazon River is the largest on Earth and supplies some 17 percent of all freshwater input to the global oceans,” says Stahle. “The most extensive tropical rainforests in the world are found in Amazonia, but little is known about climate change in the region.”

By studying tropical species of trees, Stahle hopes to lengthen the Amazon’s climate record by up to three centuries, enough to determine whether extreme variability is unusual, or a recurring pattern.





Vice Provost for Research and Economic Development
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1 University of Arkansas
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The following is a sampling of the top grants awarded to faculty and staff in August, with the principal investigator, the award amount and the sponsor. An asterisk (*) indicates the continuation of a previous award.

  • Dale R. Thompson, $991,664, National Science Foundation
  • Janie Hipp, $681,459, National Institute of Food and Agriculture
  • Morten Jensen, $500,000, Arkansas Research Alliance
  • Vincent Chevrier, $464,679, NASA
  • Laurent Bellaiche, $374,621, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
  • Alan Mantooth, $363,802, National Science Foundation