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Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County Receive More Than $6.4M in Science and Research Grants 

Grants will fund research in biodiversity, climate change, human activities, and extinction and provide support for mentoring the next generation of natural history researchers.

Los Angeles, CA (September 26, 2022)—The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) have received $6,460,688 million with 15 science, humanities, and research grants in 2021 and 2022, marking the most successful years of awards in the museums’ history. Six grants were awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and others were made by the Association of Science and Technology Centers, Boeing, California Department of Parks and Recreation, California Institute for Biodiversity, Glendale Community College Foundation, Haynes Foundation, Louis B. Mayer Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Projects that were funded range from conservation paleobiology and restoration of urban areas; history, film, and insect collections digitization; to local projects on biodiversity, and indigenous artists and arts.

“The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) are a vital and unique organization that stewards research in a variety of scientific and cultural fields as well as a collection of more than 35 million specimens and objects, while serving Los Angeles and the international community at large,” said Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, NHMLAC president and director. “Today, scientific and collections inquiries are more important than ever, and on behalf of our scientists and curators, we are so proud of being awarded these significant grants, enabling further understanding of our changing world. I congratulate all our staff members who have been successful at securing funds for their important research, and look forward to seeing the positive impact new mentorship programs will have on future generations.”

Among the received grants, two sought-after and highly competitive National Science Foundation grants, totaling nearly $3.5 million, have been awarded to NHMLAC scientists. One grant for $2.9 million – the largest single grant that the Research & Collections Department has ever received — will fund the postbaccalaureate mentoring program “RaMP: Understanding Nature and Los Angeles Biodiversity through Museum Collections and Field-based Research (UNLAB),” which will facilitate biodiversity research, mentorship, professional development, and educational enrichment for mentees. This collaborative grant, awarded to Drs. Jann Vendetti, Kayce Bell, Austin Hendy, Jody Martin, and Allison Shultz, will enable a mentorship program based at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park. A second award, a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant for $657,455, has been awarded to Dr. Emily Lindsey to further her work in end-Pleistocene environmental changes related to climate change, human activities, and extinction. Dr. Lindsey’s grant also funds a mentorship program that will take place at a research site in Peru.

Additionally, the California Department of Parks and Recreation awarded $666,696 to NHMLAC through the new Outdoor Equity Grants Program for “Wild L.A.: Exploring the Amazing Nature In and Around L.A.” which seeks to increase participation in outdoor experiences at state parks and other public lands. The funding will help establish a hub for local activities and trips to natural areas for South L.A. communities, while also empowering youth and families with outdoor leadership education, career pathways, environmental justice engagement, and access to nature.

The majority of the awarded projects were proposed by curators and collections staff in NHMLAC’s Research and Collections Department, the research division of the museums. NHMLAC’s research staff creates new knowledge through academic scholarship in history and science, and maintains a world-renowned collection of over 35 million specimens and artifacts. They work as a collective with museum visitors, digital audiences, partners, and communities, and build an inclusive, welcoming network and institution by engaging in dialogue that transcends political, cultural, and social boundaries. Their research activities are funded primarily by external grants and contracts, and by private donors.

“These incredible grant successes illustrate our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and mentorship, while fostering research and activating our collections for the benefit of society,” said Dr. Luis Chiappe, NHMLAC’s Senior Vice President of Research & Collections and Gretchen Augustyn Director of NHM’s Dinosaur Institute. “I am excited by the diversity of projects, from urban biodiversity and community engagement to asphaltic fossils and parasite evolution, and by our dynamic staff who are committed to developing pathways for the professional development of future scientists and museum staff.”

An overview of 2022 and 2021 awarded projects follows:

2022

Outdoor Equity Grant - Wild L.A.: Exploring the Amazing Nature In and Around L.A
The California Department of Parks and Recreation has awarded a $666,696 grant to NHMLAC Community Engagement and Research and Collections Departments to conduct the “Exploring the Amazing Nature In and Around Los Angeles” program for residents near the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. This program will include approximately 14 activity days in the community for approximately 850 participants and approximately 21 trips to natural areas for approximately 940 participants during three years of programming.

Activities in the community will include Becoming a Community Scientist; Introduction to Museums; and Overnight Camp Out in the Museum's Nature Gardens. Trips to natural areas outside of the community will include Charmlee Wilderness Park; Abalone Cove; Eaton Canyon; Oro Vista Park; Malibu State Park; and Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

Insect Barcode Initiative (IBI)
The California Institute for Biodiversity has awarded a $596,503 grant to NHMLAC’s Dr. Brian Brown and Department of Entomology to better understand the insect biodiversity of California through the coordination and participation of a new survey of insects across the state. New collections will be made at many long-term sites, termed observatory sites, which will also be featured in ongoing climatological research and upcoming soil and fungal surveys. All specimens will be characterized by DNA barcoding, and the data generated will be the basis of a greatly increased documentation of California insects, including declines in insect populations.

Cultivating Community L.A.
The Association of Science and Technology Centers has awarded $26,000 to NHMLAC’s Community Science program for this project, a part of the ASTC Dialogue & Deliberation Community Science Fellowship in partnership with community-based organization (CBO) Nature for All. This partnership will result in events, learning-sharing resources, and support community science data collection. Each will in turn impact hyperlocal direct action that centers co-created community dialogues and relationship-building between community organizations, individuals, and the Museum around the topic of equitable green space and urban nature in Los Angeles. Nature for All was awarded an additional $5,000 as a co-lead in this project.

Community Science Programming
Boeing has awarded a $50,000 grant to NHMLAC to support year-round Community Science programming. Boeing has been a dedicated supporter of local outreach and engagement for the annual City Nature Challenge and other year-round educational initiatives and urban nature research projects. With support from Boeing, NHMLAC will continue to expand access to hands-on learning opportunities that will inspire the next generation of scientists and environmental advocates.

Internship at the Natural History Museum for Glendale Community College Undergraduates
The Glendale Community College Foundation has awarded a $5,600 grant to Dr. Jann Vendetti to facilitate student-involved collections-based research projects based on specimens housed at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. This one-of-a-kind opportunity for Glendale Community College students began in 2015 as Biology course Biol 50. This internship combines natural history collections-based research with training in systematics, evolutionary biology, science communication, and professional development. Since 2015, seven student cohorts have completed this course and 89.2% have pursued a degree in science after transferring to a 4-year institution; 24% have presented their research at a scientific meeting; and 5.4% are co-authors on scientific research papers that have been submitted, accepted, or published.

Tropical Ecosystem Response to Late-Quaternary Environmental Change: Insight from Remarkable Asphalt-Preserved Biotas
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant of $657,455 to Dr. Emily Lindsey for “Tropical Ecosystem Response to Late-Quaternary Environmental Change: Insight from Remarkable Asphalt-Preserved Biotas.” This project will engage North- and South American students and scientists in recovering, identifying, and describing fossil material from a north-coastal Peruvian asphaltic locality (colloquially, “tar pit”). The new fossil collections, comprising plant, small vertebrate, and invertebrate remains, will be curated in Peru, forming a comprehensive and scientifically valuable late-Quaternary fossil collection in this poorly-studied region. Dr. Lindsey, her students and their South American colleagues will use these fossils to investigate interactions between humans, climate, and biotic communities. This research will focus on three main questions: (1) What was the late-Quaternary ecosystem structure in the coastal western Neotropics, before the disappearance of the Pleistocene large mammal communities?; (2) How, when, and in response to what climatic and anthropogenic processes did this ecosystem undergo the dramatic ecological state change to its current desertified condition?; and, (3) How did these processes integrate with environmental changes and human impacts in other South American regions, leading to a continental – and global – extinction event?

Adaptation or Opportunity? Using Mammal Sucking Lice to Determine What Drives Host-Parasite Associations
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a grant of $538,419 to Dr. Kayce Bell for “Adaptation or opportunity? Using mammal sucking lice to determine what drives host-parasite associations.” This collaborative research project will investigate how the evolutionary history, genes, and physical traits of sucking lice, including human lice, determine what host species they can parasitize. These findings will also identify potential genetic and physical traits important in parasitism to investigate in other parasites. More broadly, this research can be used to help understand the likelihood of a parasite moving to a new host and help to reduce or mitigate the consequences of such shifts to new hosts. This project will train students and researchers in cutting-edge research methods, generate college-level curricula, and use virtual reality experiences to educate the public about the diversity of lice and their traits.

RaMP: Understanding Nature and Los Angeles Biodiversity (UNLAB) through Museum Collections and Field-based Research
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a grant of $2,982,873 (the largest amount ever received by the Research and Collections Department) to Dr. Jann Vendetti, Dr. Jody Martin, Dr. Austin Hendy, Dr. Allison Shultz, and Dr. Kayce Bell for “RaMP: Understanding Nature and Los Angeles Biodiversity (UNLAB) through Museum Collections and Field-based Research.” This postbaccalaureate mentoring program will facilitate biodiversity research, mentorship, professional development, and educational enrichment for 30 mentees in collaboration with curators, other NHMLAC staff, and external co-mentors.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County will host and mentor UNLAB mentees in research projects focused on Southern California biodiversity in the context of a changing planet. The curator-led research projects will investigate this theme within three related tracks: biodiversity before humans; biodiversity introduced, removed, or geographically changed by humans; and biodiversity responses to humans. Projects will include modern species and fossils, those on land and in the ocean, and both animals and plants, providing broad-ranging insights and varied experiences for mentees. Results from mentees' guided research will have implications for local conservation and management as well as for understanding how humans shape biodiversity more broadly. Mentors and UNLAB’s extended network of professionals at the Natural History Museum and throughout greater Los Angeles will foster mentee confidence and competence in a number of different STEM career opportunities. Basing UNLAB in a public museum will allow mentees to develop a broad range of scientific and communication skills that they can apply to continuing their formal education or the career of their choice.

MRI: Acquisition of a μCT Scanner for Research, Digitization and Education at NHM
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a grant of $256,778 to Dr. Bill Ludt and Dr. Jody Martin for the purpose of acquiring a micro computed tomography (µCT) scanner. The µCT scanner acquired for this project will be used for research, exhibition, and educational programs, and will benefit society in numerous ways. Scans will be uploaded to freely accessible websites, increasing equity and access to the museum's collection objects to researchers and students worldwide. Specimens scanned at NHM will create stunning visual and 3D printed displays that will be featured in educational programs and exhibit design. Importantly, use of the µCT scanner will also train students in critical 3D skills that will transfer over to a wide variety of career applications, including medical, engineering and scientific fields. The µCT scanner acquired in this project has applications for, and will directly impact, all 22 scientific departments at NHM, as well as outside researchers and professionals throughout the LA metro region. The µCT scanner will increase our understanding of anatomy and physiology, evolutionary biology, morphology, biomechanics, and mineral sciences, among other fields that involve our museum objects and specimens. µCT scanners are becoming commonplace in cutting-edge research and museum sciences, making this a valuable asset for NHM.

Recognizing and Respecting Indigenous Artists and Arts through Combining Traditional and Contemporary Weaving and Design
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has awarded a grant of $40,000 to Dr. Amy Gusick for “Recognizing and Respecting Indigenous Artists and Arts through Combining Traditional and Contemporary Weaving and Design.” This project will support two Pacific Islander artists-in-residences at the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum in Long Beach, California, and at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in early 2023. The artists, a weaver from Guahan (Guam) and a Samoan graphic artist based in Southern California, will collaborate on creating two woven mats in response to viewing ancestral mats cared for at the two host institutions. These "sister" mats will be accessioned into the museums' collections and used in the traditional manner (i.e., sat on) for educational programming. Each site will offer space for the artists to work and the opportunity to interact with the public through studio visits, workshops, programming, and exhibition displays.

2021

A Permanent Home for the Historical Society of Southern CA Collection
The John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation has awarded Dr. William Estrada $35,000 for this project which will result in the processing and cataloging of approximately 10,000 photographs, documents, and books, related to the history of Southern California, donated from the Historical Society of Southern California collections. A collection finding aid will be created and placed on the Online Archive of California website.

Informed Design of Crystalline Ion Exchangers: Improved λ-MnO2 Phase for Lithium Extraction from Geologic Fluids
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded Dr. Aaron Celestian $120,066 for the project “Informed design of crystalline ion exchangers: Improved λ-MnO2 phase for lithium extraction from geologic fluids.” A large amount of lithium exists in natural brines but is not economically extractable to a lack of adequate technology. The United States has a vast amount of lithium stored in brines that could easily supply all U.S. lithium demand. The critical need for efficiently extracting lithium from brines is the availability of a selective sorbent that can separate lithium from the other brine constituents and do so without being fouled or scaled by the other brine constituents. The other important aspect is that the extraction process must have a low environmental impact so that it won’t affect water quality after extraction. A manganese-based sorbent (lithium manganese oxide, LMO) has been developed based on known mineral crystal structures and has the critical properties of high capacity, high lithium selectivity, and resistance to fouling, but lacks sufficient durability. The material slowly dissolves in acid regeneration, so lithium extraction is subeconomic.

During this project, the durability of LMO will be dramatically improved by applying new methods of real-time (in situ) characterization to watch how the LMO material changes as it absorbs lithium. This characterization will allow us to re-engineer and perform rapid testing and prototyping of an improved material with all the necessary properties to enable domestic economic projection of lithium from brines while improving the environmental quality of the water. This work will be dominantly performed in the Mineral Sciences lab.

Conservation Paleobiology in Cities: Integrating Geohistorical Data into Urban Greening
The National Science Foundation’s Conservation Paleobiology Network has awarded Dr. Emily Lindsey and Dr. Regan Dunn $6,100 for this collaborative working group that brings together paleontologists, urban ecologists, and land managers to determine how geohistorical records, particularly paleobotanical data, can be leveraged to support successful conservation and sustainability efforts in urban areas. A key focus of this partnership, which includes the City of LA and The Nature Conservancy, is the restoration of the Bowtie parcel along the Los Angeles River.

Western History Research Project to Preserve and Digitize the Film Frame Collection and Contribute to the Online Film Atlas
The Louis B. Mayer Foundation has awarded Dr. William Estrada $80,000 for this project, which will catalog and digitize the approximately 4,000 film frames that comprise The Film Frame Collection, an important resource documenting the technological development and history of motion picture film. Additionally, five hundred digital images selected from the collection will be included in an online Film Atlas sponsored by the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and the George Eastman Museum. The Film Atlas will draw images from international motion picture archives and will be available to researchers worldwide.

Collaborative Research: Digitization TCN: Extending Anthophila Research Through Image and Trait Digitization (Big-Bee)
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Dr. Brian Brown $236,048 for this project which will be used to photograph about 50,000 bees, including their data labels, in the extensive collection housed in the Department of Entomology. Crowdsourced labor will be used to database all specimens. This is a nationwide effort that will result in bees being one of the best documented groups of insects in North America.


About the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County
The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) include the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park, and the William S. Hart Museum in Newhall. They operate under the collective vision to inspire wonder, discovery, and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds. The museums hold one of the world’s most extensive and valuable collections of natural and cultural history—more than 35 million objects. Using these collections for groundbreaking scientific and historical research, the museums also incorporate them into on- and offsite nature and culture exploration in L.A. neighborhoods, and a slate of community science programs—creating indoor-outdoor visitor experiences that explore the past, present, and future. Visit NHMLAC.ORG for adventure, education, and entertainment opportunities.