IUP Biology Faculty Member Selected for Fulbright US Scholar Grant

Posted on 5/3/2019 2:39:02 PM

Josiah Townsend and students Josiah Townsend, associate professor in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Biology, has been selected for a 2019–20 Fulbright US Scholar grant.

“A Fulbright grant is one of the most prestigious and competitive grants that a faculty can earn,” IUP Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Timothy Moerland said. 

“It’s extremely gratifying to see a faculty member like Dr. Townsend, who continues to demonstrate such a strong commitment to research and teaching, be selected for this honor. We are very proud of him and know that his research in Honduras will continue to enrich the lives of our students as well as add to the ongoing work of the global community of scientists.”

As a Fulbright recipient, Townsend will spend the 2019–20 academic year in Honduras working at Zamorano Agricultural University and the National Autonomous University of Honduras–Valle de Sula (UNAH).

He will divide his time between conducting research leading to the discovery of new species of amphibians and reptiles and to support national biodiversity conservation initiatives, while teaching classes in ecology and biodiversity and offering professional development workshops for biology faculty and students in the country. 

“I’ve always been focused on international research and have always seen the Fulbright as a professional goal,” Townsend said. The application process takes almost two years, with phases of peer review and State Department review. For Townsend, the review process also included approval from the US Embassy and host institutions in Honduras.

“It is an incredible honor to be selected as a Fulbright Scholar, and I am grateful for the support of the IUP administration, including President Driscoll and Provost Moerland, Dean Snavely of the Kopchick College, and my department chair, Dr. Bharathan,” Townsend said. “Their enthusiastic support allowed me to pursue this award, and the endorsement of my collaborators at Zamorano and UNAH-VS in Honduras opened the door for me to join them for the next year.” 

Townsend has done research in Honduras annually since his undergraduate years, so the work that will be done during his Fulbright award adds to his ongoing commitment to document and conserve the biological resources of Honduras. Townsend is one of the few international scientists who regularly work in Honduras.

Since coming to IUP seven years ago, Townsend developed the Townsend Lab at IUP, which utilizes molecular phylogenetics, comparative morphology, and macroecological modeling to reveal underestimated species-level diversity and unexpected patterns of evolution diversification. 

His work at IUP, which routinely includes both undergraduate and graduate students, has resulted in the discovery and delimitation of more than a dozen new species, including onging work to uncover new species of glassfrogs and treefrogs, which will be announced later this year and follows several years of study.

Prior to beginning his Fulbright work, Townsend will continue his research in Honduras this summer with four IUP biology students and one IUP biology graduate. The summer research program includes a four-day symposium at UNAH-VS being led by Townsend and featuring the IUP students from June 5 to 9: “Patterns of Evolutionary Diversification in Amphibians from Honduras: Challenges, Advances, and Opportunities.” 

The IUP students are undergraduate biology majors Esbeiry Cordova-Ortiz, of Avondale, and Ayla Ross, of State College; and biology graduate students Daniel Dudek, of McKeesport, and Justin O’Neill, of North Hills, along with IUP biology graduate Thomas Firneno, Jr. (a 2016 IUP biology master’s degree graduate and Outstanding Graduate Research Award winner), who is currently studying for his doctorate at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“The students will present the results of their research projects at IUP, in order to return the scientific results to the hosts and collaborators that made the work possible in the first place,” Townsend said.
“This should be an outstanding experience for our students and participants alike, and will continue to strengthen IUP’s ties to UNAH,” he said.

“Working in the research lab with Dr. Townsend has been an invaluable experience,” Ross said. “The amazing work that we do as a lab has a large impact on amphibians and reptiles in Central America. I couldn't have asked for a better advisor than Dr. Townsend. He is able to bring to life that raw enthusiasm we feel for amphibians and apply it to our different research projects.

“IUP has been amazing in letting undergraduate students take lead roles in research and blossom as scientists. I could not have gotten this type of experience anywhere else,” Ross said. “As I apply to graduate programs, I know my resume stands apart from other students based on the quality of research I was able to conduct in Dr. Townsend's lab.”

Townsend’s Fulbright Award will complement another large biodiversity project being finalized in Honduras—the development of a new field station and research center for Texiguat Wildlife Refuge, an area that Townsend describes as “one of the world’s most impressive, and most threatened, biodiversity hotspots.” This initiative begins this summer and will continue over the next three to five years.

“When the field station is completed, it offers infrastructure to bring students and researchers to the unique site,” Townsend said. 

“Once the center is up and running, it will allow IUP to offer students access to a previously unaccessible, endemism-rich cloud forest, which is known for its unique plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles. mammals and birds. Many of which only found in this forest and no place else.” 

Texiguat is known as a hot spot for unique species, including the bright green pitviper discovered and named by Townsend and IUP graduate student Melissa Medina in 2013 as Guifarro’s Palm-Pitviper, in honor of the late conservationist Mario Guifarro of Honduras. 

“Evolutionarily, this area is a very unique place. We’re still uncovering the ‘why’ of that. I’ve visited and studied this site since 2008, and with every expedition I come back with something new and unexpected: we’ve found three new species of snakes, two new salamanders (and one more species yet to be formally named), a treefrog, and rediscovered another treefrog thought to be extinct.”

“The Texiguat research center has been one of my long-term goals,” Townsend said. “I want our students to have more opportunities to do international work, to offer something unique at IUP, and eventually, build an IUP-based study-abroad program,” he said. After the infrastructure is completed, a nonprofit foundation will be established to fund and manage the center, and Townsend hopes to connect the center to the universities in that region.

Townsend joined the IUP community in 2012. He completed doctoral and post-doctoral work at the University of Florida, where he was recently recognized with an Outstanding Young Alumni Award. But it was while studying at Miami-Dade Community College in 1999 that he had the chance to study with one of the leading authorities in tropical reptiles, Larry Wilson, who invited him to go to Honduras for a field study. “I fell in love with the country, and I’ve gone back every year since.” He also met his wife, who is also a biologist and part-time faculty member at IUP, in Honduras.

While he completed his studies in Florida, Townsend grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bethel Park, so he knew of IUP.

“When I interviewed at IUP, I was really attracted the teacher-scholar balance,” Townsend said. “I came from a Research 1 university, but I felt strongly that if I was going to be a professor, I wanted to work more closely with students than in that Research 1 model. 

“It was clear that a commitment to teaching and to students was the natural way that things worked at IUP, and I really liked that. While the teaching load is a strong one, the support for student research that you get at IUP feels almost limitless,” he said. “I work in a great department, and our college dean is also extremely supportive, to the benefit of our students.”

Townsend is very proud of the students in his lab and their successes, which have included his students being selected for numerous outstanding student awards and admission to prestigious graduate programs for his graduating students.

“I make an effort to recruit freshman students from my introductory classes; I want to have them in the lab all four years,” he said. “But I want to be sure that the students who work on my team are doing what they want to do and love to do,” he said. “it is very fulfilling to see my students be successful, and I’m happy that I can help create the space for them to grow into the scientists they want to become,” he said.

While Townsend will be off-campus for the 2019–20 academic year, he won’t be absent.

“The Fulbright program strongly encourages you to share your experience, so I will be working to determine the best way to communicate the work that I’m doing back here to IUP,” he said. And, it won’t just be limited to Townsend: Townsend’s son, a student at Indiana’s Keys Montessori preschool, will also be sharing his experiences in Honduras through a pen pal exchange.