Sarah Giddings (left) and Deirdre Lyons

Two Scripps Scientists Receive NSF CAREER Awards

Deirdre Lyons and Sarah Giddings receive prestigious awards that support early-career faculty

Two scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego have been awarded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER). The prestigious CAREER program recognizes exceptional early-career faculty who 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.”

CAREER awards are highly competitive because they include a federal grant for research and education activities for five consecutive years, providing faculty with the freedom to pursue bold research. Scripps Oceanography scientists Deirdre Lyons and Sarah Giddings are among the recent NSF award recipients, and both have ambitious projects in the works that will lay the foundation for their careers as teacher-scholars.

A portrait of a woman with curly brunette hair and a yellow cardigan
Deirdre Lyons

Lyons is a cell and molecular biologist who studies evolutionary developmental biology and gene regulation. Her research compares developmental patterns in different animal embryos to understand how diversity arose through evolution. Much of her work focuses on molluscs, particularly marine snails of the genus Crepidula, because these unique animals develop through a highly conserved spiral cleavage pattern that can be used to compare distantly related animals at single-cell resolution.

Lyons’ CAREER proposal, funded in 2021, seeks to answer major questions about how mollusc shells are made during the process of development. Using the slipper snail as a model organism and high-tech tools including CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing, Lyons will gain a more complete understanding of the cellular and gene regulatory mechanisms that lead to Crepidula shell formation. This work provides a framework for future studies by Lyons’ group and others to explain how the amazing diversity of molluscan shells arose through evolution, as well as to understand how some molluscs, like octopus and adult nudibranchs, dispense with shell formation.

A photo of a Crepidula atrasolea slipper snail
A ventral view of an adult Crepidula atrasolea slipper snail, with a shell on its back.

Her research will look at how the embryonic shell gland matures into the mantle tissue, how the biomineralization process (by which living organisms produce minerals) changes during development, how shell matrix proteins are regulated, and what their functions are in the formation of the shell.

“Mollusc shells are beautiful and iconic products of the sea, and while they are very well studied in some respect, such as their biomaterial properties, very few studies have tested the function of individual shell proteins,” said Lyons, an assistant professor at the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine and the Marine Biology Research Division at Scripps. “We are eager to uncover how shell proteins are turned on in the right time and place in the animal, as well as how each protein contributes to shell shape and microstructure. Our work will provide new insights about the molecular mechanisms of how shells are made in each generation, and how they diversified over evolution.”

As part of this project, Lyons will expand research and learning opportunities at UC San Diego through a new laboratory course for undergraduates, “Methods in Cell and Developmental Biology of Marine Organisms.” This course has been approved to be taught as a “Course-assisted Undergraduate Research Experience” (CURE) in which Scripps will host local public high-school students from High Tech High for five-week internships. The joint mentoring program will engage more than 80 marine biology majors over the course of the award period, and the course will provide all students with authentic research experiences in cell and developmental biology.

Fellow CAREER recipient Giddings, a coastal oceanographer who studies the physical dynamics of estuaries and bays, was honored by the program in 2020. Her research focuses on coastal areas where freshwater runoff meets the ocean. These areas have immense ecological and economic value, providing homes for many plants and animals and often serving as the centers of coastal communities.

Portrait of a woman with curly blonde hair and the ocean/cliffs in the background
Sarah Giddings

Giddings’ CAREER proposal seeks to understand the importance of oceanic forcing on estuarine exchange flow—how water moves between estuaries and the coastal ocean—and how this varies across ten selected estuaries around the world. Estuarine exchange flow is critical for determining the health of estuaries and the adjacent coastal ocean as it dictates exchange of not just water masses, but also nutrients, acidic waters, dissolved oxygen, larvae, and more. While many aspects of estuarine exchange have been studied, less is known about the impacts of offshore forcing, which includes processes like offshore plumes, coastal trapped waves, and wind driven upwelling or downwelling.

“We are excited to undertake this ambitious project to explore oceanic impacts on estuarine exchange across a broad array of estuaries in order to try to unify theory across different systems. In the process of doing so, we will bring together estuarine scientists across the world,” said Giddings, an assistant professor in the Integrative Oceanography Division at Scripps. “Finally, we are excited to directly integrate the scientific work with community outreach and education through a series of tool and lesson plan developments.” 

Additionally, her project aims to improve our understanding of how estuaries may respond to future changes of oceanic and atmospheric conditions. Fostering a collaborative approach, the project brings together a community of estuarine scientists, educators, and students who will contribute to the research by providing model output and using an interactive visualization tool for numerical simulations.

Lyons and Giddings join several other Scripps scientists who have received NSF CAREER awards since the program emerged in the mid-1990s. Recent Scripps awardees include biological oceanographer Jeff Bowman, who received an award in 2019, and planetary geophysicist Anne Pommier, who received an award in 2018.

Learn more about the NSF CAREER program here

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at

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