GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida is one of the first institutions to receive two Partnership for International Research and Education Grants from the National Science Foundation in a single award cycle.

The university’s Florida Museum of Natural History received $3.8 million to study the history of climate change and biodiversity in Panama, and the College of Engineering received $3.1 million to study multiphase fluid mechanics with leading institutes in Japan and France.

“One of the primary goals of the project is to build internationally competent researchers among future U.S. scientists through innovative research and learning experiences,” said Doug Jones, director and curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum and principal investigator on the museum’s grant.

Students and researchers participating in the museum grant will collect fossils from deposits excavated from the Panama Canal during construction to widen and straighten the channel and build new locks. The project will expand researchers’ understanding of global changes that occurred when the Isthmus of Panama formed, creating a land bridge between North America and South America.

The five-year grants emphasize the importance of international cooperation in research and education projects. The Florida Museum and College of Engineering hope to build long- lasting partnerships with their international counterparts that could lead to work on future projects.

“An important outcome is the generation of globally sensitive, globally educated, 21st century students,” said Ranga Narayanan, College of Engineering professor and distinguished teacher-scholar and principal investigator for the engineering grant.

The engineering project is the first NSF international research and education grant on multiphase fluid mechanics, which studies fluid behavior and motion when a liquid interacts with another liquid, solid or gas. The study will examine flow patterns and instabilities in fluids, why those patterns occur and how they may be controlled.

“Virtually everything you see around you that is manufactured is affected by multiphase flows,” Narayanan said. “Take for example the semi-conductor chips in your computer or the potato chips that you like to munch on.”

The research has potential applications for many industries, including space exploration, drug delivery, energy production and materials processing, with an economic impact of tens of billions of dollars annually, Narayanan said.

Jones described the museum program as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of the large amount of sediment being exposed during the Panama Canal construction project, and the fossil record those sediments contain.

“The marine connection between the Atlantic and Pacific was severed simultaneously with the rise of the Panama Isthmus, changing oceanic circulation and ushering in a new climate regime affecting the entire planet.” Jones said. “Sediments also record the evolution of tropical biodiversity as well as the mixing of faunas and floras in Central America as they migrated from North and South America.”

Of the 500 institutions that applied, 83 were invited to submit full proposals, and 15 projects received funding. NSF has not announced the other institution to receive two grants.

The Florida Museum is partnering with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution, Panama; the New Mexico Museum of Natural History; Florida State University, Panama Canal Campus; Biomuseo, Panama; Universidad de Panama; Sociedad Mastozoologica de Panama; and Autoridad del Canal de Panama for the project.

“It’s a cooperative effort among institutions to learn about the paleontology of Panama and educate people both in Panama and the U.S.,” said Gary Morgan, curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and co-investigator on the museum grant.

Researchers and students also will develop a museum exhibit based on the findings.

“We envision a 1,000-square-foot, bilingual traveling exhibit tentatively called ‘Panama Canal Discoveries,’ ” Jones said. “It will feature some of the interesting fossil discoveries from the project and provide context to the significance and implications of these fossils.”

The College of Engineering is partnering with Florida State University, five French universities and five Japanese institutions. The French partners are the universities of Paris, Lille, Poitiers, Marseille and Toulouse. The Japanese institutions include the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the University of Tokyo, Tokyo University of Science, Kyoto University and Tohoku University.

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Source: Doug Jones, 352-273-1902,
Ranga Narayanan, 352-392-9103,
Writer: Leeann Bright
Media contact: Paul Ramey, 352-273-2054,