Professor strikes it big with NSF grant


University of Idaho professor David Tank grew up in the woods of Michigan. He learned the names of plant species from his father, a biology professor at a community college in Michigan. Tank said growing up with science played an important part in his family’s life.

Jesse Hart I Argonaut David Tank, College of Natural Resources professor, won the National Science Foundation's CAREER award.

Jesse Hart I Argonaut
David Tank, College of Natural Resources professor, won the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award.

“I have five brothers and sisters, and three of us are biologists,” Tank said.

Tank started his academic career at the same community college his father taught at.  After completing two years of school he transferred to Michigan State, where he completed his undergraduate. The next two years Tank worked on his master’s at Michigan State and then the University of Washington for his doctoral studies.

Today, Tank is a professor in the College of Natural Resources UI and his focus of research is in phylogenetics. Phylogenetics uses molecular sequencing to study the evolutionary relationships among groups of organisms.

Tank’s research is focused on the plant genus Castilleja, commonly known as the paintbrushes. The paintbrushes are very young in evolutionary terms, and have already evolved into 180 different species, Tank said.

Tank looks at the phylogenetics and geographical locations of the plants and then he is able to get an idea of when the plants started to evolve and diverge from one another.

Professors need to find ways to get funding for their research. Tank said a lot of the work professors do is applying for grants to fund the research they want to do.

Tank applied for The Faculty Early Career Development award through the National Science Foundation. The purpose of the award is to give professors the opportunity to support junior faculty early in their careers and exemplify their role as teachers by using research and educational initiatives.

“I applied to this program that is very competitive, but I felt like I had a good case,” Tank said.

He said his evolutionary research and his teaching experience made him a good candidate for the award.

In December, Tank was at a faculty meeting when he got an email telling him to call the NSF. He said he has been rejected from grants before and the emails never tell him to call the foundation, so he got a little excited. He got out of the meeting, and ran to his office to call the NSF.

He won the CAREER Award.

“When I found out I was super happy,” Tank said.

Tank said he was ecstatic because he just earned $800,000 to fund his research and passion for science for the next five years.

“It will fund all my supplies and genomic tools that I use to understand plant genome,” Tank said.

Along with funding his supplies, the money will also pay for graduate students and a two-week-long field botany course at the UI McCall Field Campus for the next five years.

John Fish can be reached at


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