ECU professor to shape funding at NSF

An East Carolina University associate professor will have the chance to shape science funding at the national level during the next two years.

Chris Balakrishnan, a faculty member in the Department of Biology in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, has been appointed to a temporary program director position with the National Science Foundation’s Evolutionary Processes Cluster.

The position allows Balakrishnan to make recommendations about which NSF research proposals to fund. He’ll also influence new directions in the fields of science, engineering and education, while supporting cutting-edge research and mentoring junior researchers.

Sylvan Heights Bird Park

In partnership with Sylvan Heights Bird Park, Balakrishan has shared his work with the public on bird evolutionary processes. (Photo by Paige Middleton/REDE)

Balakrishnan’s research focuses on evolutionary processes, especially in bird species. His work studies different behaviors – including parental care and song-learning mechanisms – and the molecular processes that underlie those actions.

“My research combines different subdivisions of biological research, including neurobiology, immunology and evolutionary biology,” Balakrishnan said. “Supporting research that integrates multiple subdivisions is something the NSF aims to support. We do a great job at ECU of working across disciplines and that’s something I believe set me apart for this position.”

As a temporary program director, Balakrishnan will interact with potential principal investigators and form merit review panels. Additionally, program directors can be involved with national scientific programs and initiatives that enhance their professional growth.

“This is going to have a positive impact on my research in the long run,” Balakrishnan said. “I’ll be exposed to cutting-edge research from across the country in multiple disciplines. I’ll have the chance to evaluate the work of my peers while learning and improving my research at the same time.”

Balakrishnan’s appointment will begin in August 2019 and will initially run for a year. He will have the opportunity to extend his appointment for an additional year. He will be based at the NSF’s headquarters in Alexandria, Va.

The evolutionary processes cluster supports research focusing on evolutionary changes in species from genomic research to interspecies interactions. As part of his post, Balakrishnan will be able to continue his research. He has received multiple NSF awards totaling nearly $560,000.

“I was concerned about the position detracting from my own research, but the NSF has support mechanisms in place that allow me to continue my work,” Balakrishnan said. “ECU graduate students will continue to carry out my lab’s research goals and continue our outreach efforts.”

Balakrishnan has been a supporter of community engagement and entrepreneurial activities at ECU. He is an Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Engagement Fellow and serves as a member of the university’s Economic Development and Engagement Council. Balakrishnan has worked closely with Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck to display his research and educate park visitors about evolutionary behavior processes.

“The NSF grant process evaluates two primary parts: intellectual merit and broader impacts,” Balakrishnan said. “I’ll be able to bring my experience in community engagement to the funding process and ensure that the research we’re supporting has a broad societal impact.”

Jay Golden, vice chancellor for research, economic development and engagement, said Balakrishnan’s chance to shape the national agenda for evolutionary science is a remarkable opportunity.

“We’re proud that Chris will represent ECU at the national level,” Golden said. “He’s been a strong advocate for research, economic development and engagement activities in eastern North Carolina. He’ll be able to carry that passion to the National Science Foundation. We will miss having him on campus, but we know he’ll return a better researcher and mentor after serving his appointment.”

Learn more at Balakrishnan’s work online.