Artificial city

Man-made light pollution raises concerns for human and wildlife well-being

Jenny Ouyang, an associate professor in the Department of Biology at the College of Science, grew up in Xi’an, a brightly lit large city in China. According to Ouyang, by 2025, more than 80% of the world’s population will be living under lightly polluted skies, raising concerns for human and wildlife welfare. Her journey and the increase in light pollution around the world continue to inspire her interest in urban ecology and her desire to build greener cities.

Ouyang received a $1.2 million National Science Foundation CAREER Award grant to study the growing problem of light pollution and the effects of artificial lighting in the night sky on birds and avian offspring. Throughout her research, she will integrate a training plan to train the next generation of young scientists, in particular under-represented students.

Ouyang has obtained several research grants and scholarships throughout his career, including a $420,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health for his research on neurosensory function in response to light pollution. She has also won several research, travel and teaching awards.

A house sparrow, one of several species in the study, feeding its chick.

Please describe the research your CAREER grant will support.

Currently, more than 65% of the world’s population lives under light pollution, with artificial light increasing the luminance of the night sky by more than 10% of natural light levels. By 2025, more than 80% of the world’s population will be living under lightly polluted skies, raising concerns for human and wildlife well-being. This project will study how different colors of nighttime lighting affect the health and behavioral rhythms of wild birds. It will also test how nighttime light affects avian offspring. Finally, an integrated educational project aims to train the next generation of scientists.

What is the goal of your CAREER project?

The proposed project will: 1) provide tangible results through community outreach, 2) provide critical information to combat light pollution, and 3) contribute to meaningful educational outcomes, especially for underrepresented students. Project results will improve scientific and technological understanding by converting light data into an index used by lighting engineers, which will inform engineers about the most environmentally friendly artificial light sources. In turn, the research will benefit society by informing public policy on the biological effects of light pollution. I will collaborate with the lighting company Philips to develop light boxes as an educational tool for elementary schools. Additionally, the education plan contains a partnership with Sierra Nevada Journeys to develop an “ALAN (artificial light at night) and clocks” station for family STEM nights, reaching a wider audience of families, teachers, and students. administrators. Together, the results of this project and the educational programs coherently address an environmental pressure that is of growing concern to society and science.

What prompted you to pursue this research? How has it evolved?

I grew up in Xi’an City, a major city in China with a population of nearly 13 million. When I visited in 2018, I was amazed at how much everything had changed in five years. The city was illuminated 24/7 with new construction and blinding lights. Growing up in Xi’an and seeing how other cities are developing sparked my interest in urban ecology and building “greener” cities. I am an integrative physiologist and am interested in how animals adapt to changing environmental conditions. Urbanization is one of the fastest and most directional land use changes globally. I was grateful for the opportunity to join Dr. Mike Webster’s COBRE at UNR, which propelled my research into clock genes and neurosensory function in collaboration with Dr. Yong Zhang. The results of this work fueled my desire to better understand how circadian rhythms, behavior, and physical fitness are affected by city lights.

What are the concrete implications of this research? What do you hope to achieve?

Light cycles are a fundamental component of natural environments, but over the last half century electric lighting has flooded the world of ALAN. The experiments proposed in this project will provide concrete information on the type of light sources most respectful of the environment, allowing urban planners and planners to adapt night lighting. The education plan aims to mentor and train the next generation of scientists. We will be developing light boxes in conjunction with Nest-Watchers for use in local elementary schools and working with Sierra Nevada Journeys to develop an “ALAN and clocks” station for STEM nights. The Fledge program for undergraduate research in my lab is based on a scaffolding research experience that will train underrepresented students in STEM research. With the integration of research and education, I hope to bring solutions to a world that is increasingly experiencing night loss.

What impact will your project/research have in your field, the biological sciences?

ALAN profoundly disrupts the temporal organization of light cycles, and the increasing diversity of electric luminaires also provides light with spectra different from any natural light. It is clear from decades of research that light is the most important temporal signal for the regulation of circadian rhythms. A growing body of evidence also suggests that light pollution causes physiological disturbances and pathologies. However, the molecular mechanisms that cause these downstream effects remain unclear. This project will test whether short-wavelength ALAN reduces fitness through circadian disruption. We will combine field and laboratory experiments to test the effects of nighttime lighting with modified spectra on behavior, physiology, reproduction, and gene expression. By uncovering the mechanisms underlying the responses to artificial light, we will be able to measure, predict and ameliorate the potential harmful effects of light pollution, especially because the disruptive effects vary according to the spectral composition of light. The fusion of genetic, mechanistic, and behavioral approaches is one way to uncover the immediate and ultimate consequences of light pollution.

What’s next for you, your research and your career?

I am very excited to embark on this project, not only because of the scientific research, but also because of the education plan to train the next generation of scientists and problem solvers. I want to continue studying urban ecology with the hope that my work will contribute to creative and innovative ways to help our changing planet. I feel very lucky to be at NUR, with a network of the best people in the world to help tackle questions from genotype to phenotype. I want to thank all my students and postdocs and the Evol Doers lab group who contributed ideas and data in the development of this project, and I want to continue to mentor and work with an enthusiastic team. I am grateful to the graduate programs in Integrative Neuroscience and Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation, the Office of Research and Innovation, the Department of Biology, the College of Science, and all field site coordinators (Caughlin Ranch, Idlewild Park, City of Reno, Green’s Feed, UNR Main Station Farm) for their ongoing support. I can’t imagine a better place to pursue this research and a better team of people to work with.