Two MTSU biology faculty land $1M NSF grants to su...

Two MTSU biology faculty land $1M NSF grants to support research projects

Middle Tennessee State University assistant biology professors Liz Barnes and Donny Walker both recently landed prestigious, highly competitive National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program grants, a major accomplishment for them and evidence of the university’s growing research efforts. (MTSU graphic illustration by Stephanie Wagner)

Since earning an R2 designation as a “doctoral university: high research activity” in spring 2022, Middle Tennessee State University has continued to boost research — most recently with Department of Biology assistant professors Liz Barnes and Donny Walker each landing $1 million National Science Foundation grants.

The funds are awarded through the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, also known as CAREER grants, and comes as the university continues to ramp up research initiatives in support of its R2 designation from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

Dr. Greg Van Patten, professor, Chemistry; dean, CBAS
Dr. Greg Van Patten

“NSF Early Career awards are well-known and highly sought-after by researchers across the country,” said Greg Van Patten, dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. “Getting two in the same department in the same year is a real indication that we are competing at a high level in research.”

The grant provides funding over five years for qualifying, pre-tenured faculty across the country who make it through the rigorous application process and “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF website. 

Winners’ research projects must demonstrate a furthering of basic knowledge and understanding, a developing of their scientific communities and a commitment to equity, diversity, accessibility and inclusion in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The only other Tennessee institutions to accomplish multiple CAREER wins in the same year, just three in the state, are classified as R1 research institutions, also known as “very high research activity” institutions, said Van Patten, adding that “this result shows … that even at our new, R2 level, we are punching above our weight.”

Dr. David Butler, dean of the College of Graduate Studies and vice provost for research
Dr. David Butler

David Butler, vice provost for research, said the latest NSF CAREER grants bring the university’s total to four such awards.

“Awarding these faculty is a high honor as it represents a strong belief that these faculty will be leaders in their fields for the rest of their careers,” Butler said. “It is a testament to the faculty, departments, colleges and the university that we have been able to produce such great success in these areas.”

Added Van Patten: “These grants bring distinction and prestige that attracts new faculty and students to the institution. They provide great opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students to participate in cutting-edge research projects that have been identified as among the best new directions by junior faculty members.

“They are aligned with the same two primary goals of a university: advancement of human knowledge and education of scholars. The grants bring significant financial resources to us to advance those two goals.”

Shedding tears of joy

Barnes, whose project centers on the most effective ways to communicate polarizing, yet foundational, information about climate change and vaccines to undergraduate science students, said she is so excited to get to do what she loves for the next five years.

Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Barnes, Biology Education
Dr. Elizabeth Barnes

“I was alone in my living room when I opened up the email that my proposal had been well received, and I will tell you that I screamed at the top of my lungs, I jumped up and down about fifteen times and I cried,” said Barnes, a Phoenix, Arizona, native. “It’s a dream come true.”

Barnes’ project will create a new science communication research course that allows undergraduates to conduct research simply by enrolling in the class and also employ a lab team of about six. She aims to use her nationwide research to create a cultural competence framework to help science instructors most effectively educate their students about climate change and vaccines. 

Dr. Donny Walker
Dr. Donny Walker

Walker, whose research focuses on the interaction between bacteria and pathogenic fungi in the microbiome of snakes, said he learned about his win over the phone. 

“I was very excited,” said the Buffalo, New York, native. “I might have shed a few tears. A lot of time and a lot of effort contributed to writing the proposal and developing these ideas over a five-year time period to finally get this project funded.”

Walker said his project, which will employ a lab team of about 11 spanning from undergraduate to post-doctorate level students, aims to expand the understanding of how bacteria and fungi communicate, how a host’s microbiome might respond to disease and how to possibly treat it; to develop and train the next generation of microbiome scientists to encourage further education or a future career in the field; and to reach out and educate local zoo and state park staff who can then educate the public.   

Dr. Dennis Mullen, MTSU Biology Department chair
Dr. Dennis Mullen

Dennis Mullen, chair of the Biology Department, said this recognition is a statement of confidence by the country’s leading scientific institution in these faculty’s potential.

“I am very happy for the department and proud of Donny and Liz,” said Mullen, adding that both also teach introductory, freshmen biology courses. “I know how hard they worked to earn this recognition.” 

Learn more about the opportunities for research across campus at the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs’ website at Learn more about opportunities at the College of Basic and Applied Sciences at and at the Department of Biology at  

— Stephanie Wagner (