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Golden winged and blue-winged warblers

David Toews receives 2024 National Science Foundation CAREER Award

6 March 2024
Dave Toews outside

David Toews, assistant professor of biology, has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The CAREER award is NSF’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty members who can serve as academic role models in research and education and lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

The CAREER award will provide five years of funding to support Toews’s research to understand the genetic differences among closely related bird species as well as how those differences impact traits and the overall success of individuals. His research group will specifically study a gene called beta carotene oxygenase 2, or BCO2, that was previously linked color differences among species within a family of birds called wood warblers. They plan to characterize variation in BCO2 across the many species of wood warblers, study its impact on pigments called carotenoids, and explore how different color patterns impact reproduction.

“There are more than 100 species of wood warblers that display a huge diversity in coloration,” Toews said. “Just like your parents told you to eat your carrots, birds need to get their carotenoids from their diet—they can’t make them on their own. But unlike us, birds actually use carotenoids for coloration, which gives their feathers beautiful yellows and oranges. The molecular machinery that underlies this, however, is not well known, and we plan to explore the link between carotenoid genes and color traits as well as fitness—how well birds survive and reproduce. This may clarify how these birds diversified so quickly and dramatically!”

In addition to studying various species of wood warblers, the research team will study hybrid birds that result when individuals from different species mate. They will combine field studies with techniques from evolutionary biology, genomics, and molecular ecology, which will include undergraduate research projects to explore how carotenoids are related to a bird’s diet. Additionally, Toews will partner with Penn State’s Center for Immersive Experiences to generate a set of virtual reality experiences and 360o videos that will introduce high school and undergraduate students to field work as well as the biology and genetics of how different bird species hybridize.

“We in Biology are over the moon about Dave receiving this prestigious CAREER award,” said Elizabeth McGraw, professor and head of biology at Penn State. “His research is collaborative, cutting edge, and so impactful. It is great to see his research being recognized, and we can't wait to see what he does with the support.”

In 2019, Toews received the Ned K. Johnson Early Investigator Award from the American Ornithological Society (AOS), an international society devoted to advancing the scientific understanding of birds. He is a member of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, which reviews and evaluates species status assessments.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State in January 2019, Toews was a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where he held a National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship and a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship. He completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Acadia University in 2005, and masters and doctoral degrees in zoology at the University of British Columbia in 2007 and 2014.

Media Contacts
David Toews
Assistant Professor of Biology
Gail McCormick
Science Writer