by Ernie Andreoli ’18
On Sept. 20, Providence College announced that Dr. Jonathan Richardson, assistant professor of biology, received a highly selective research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for $125,310.
Through field work research, Richardson will work with two undergraduate summer research assistants to study urban ecology and landscape genetics in rats. Richardson’s research project stemmed from a group of geneticists assessing the surge in the rat population in Salvador, Brazil.
“He is so passionate, it is infective,” said Dr. Charles Toth, the chair of the developmental biology department. “Dr. Richardson’s research combines different realms of biology, and his accolade has provided an incredible field work research opportunity for students.”
According to Richardson, as more humans have flocked to impoverished urban developments in Salvador, otherwise known as favelas, more rats have migrated to these destitute habitats. The main issue at hand is the spread of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease spread through the urine of infected animals, among this urban population.
Through the extraction of tissue samples from rats, Richardson is examining why the influx of rats is occurring, as well as their movement patterns. “The goal is to be able to sever the connections between rat populations and humans in order to stabilize the public health crisis in these poor urban developments,” noted Richardson.
In addition to these predominately impoverished urban developments in Salvador, rat populations have been on the rise in New York City, New Orleans, Vancouver, and other densely populated cities. Richardson has identified variables, such as socioeconomic demographics, infrastructure, and excess food resources in an effort to understand the rats’ movements.
Ultimately, Richardson’s research will aim to identify which of these variables plays a role in dictating rat migrations, and determine the commonalities of the rats’ movement. Richardson indicated that this research will “empower scientific inference by locating the generalities of the rats’ movement.”
Richardson holds a doctorate from Yale University, and is an expert in evolutionary ecology and conservation genetics. “I have always been inherently interested in the subject matter, and I knew that I always wanted to do ‘big Bio,’” said Richardson. In addition to this conservation genetics project, Richardson has conducted research on salmon genetics for the National Marine Services, as well as other research on the growth and development of amphibians.
While the NSF made 30 awards out of 136 research proposals, the majority of the research recipients were from research universities. “This is a fantastic achievement for Providence College, and represents the College as a leading science school in the Northeast that is able to receive federal research aid,” stated Toth.
Research is ingrained in the teaching mission of the biology department. Toth explained that an emphasis on research allows undergraduate students to become successful scientists, and find their passions. “Dr. Richardson’s Wildlife Conservation course provided students with active knowledge of current conservation issues occurring within Rhode Island,” noted biology major Will Rinaldi ’18.
Richardson’s research and coursework have a strong emphasis toward nature’s resiliency. “Humans have had a disproportionate effect on the environment,” Richardson said when asked to comment on current conservation issues facing society. “Species have a unique way of adapting to the changing environment.”
Prior to the onset of infrastructure and mass migrations to urban centers, the relocation of rats, among other “weedy species,” did not exist to the extent it does today. For Richardson, evolutionary adaptability is at the heart of understanding the most pressing questions in conservation genetics and urban ecology.