Baylor Biologist Receives Prestigious Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation

Sarah Kienle, Ph.D., receives the 2024 Early Career Award for her research on leopard seals, the mysterious apex predator of Antarctica.

April 17, 2024
Sarah Kienle, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Baylor University

Sarah Kienle, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Baylor University. (Photo credit: Baylor University)

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WACO, Texas (April 17, 2024) – Sarah Kienle, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Baylor University, has received a Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program – the most prestigious award in support of 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.

Kienle is a global expert on how animals work in the context of their environment with a particular focus on leopard seals, which are large apex predators in the Southern Ocean and provide an extreme example of female-biased dimorphism in mammals, where females are the larger than males. Kienle’s NSF CAREER grant of $424,301 will allow her to continue investigating the causes and consequences of female-biased dimorphism in leopard seals, generating new data on their life history, reproductive physiology and breeding biology.

“With the support of this NSF CAREER Award, I'll get to do some incredible research on one of the coolest top predators on earth – leopard seals – and work with an amazing team of researchers and collaborators around the world,” Kienle said. “It's really a dream come true.”

Kienle began collecting movement and dive behavior data and samples from leopard seals off the Western Antarctic Peninsula in 2018 to compile crucial baseline data on the ecology and physiology of this enigmatic species, information critical for understanding leopard seals' past, present and future from how the species evolved to predicting their resilience in an era of unprecedented environmental change. 

“These seals live in one of the fastest-changing places on the planet, yet we know so little about many aspects of their basic biology,” Kienle said. “The extreme climate in Antarctica, the species’ solitary habits and their lethal reputation makes leopard seals one of the most difficult apex predators to study on Earth.”

The data has already produced two groundbreaking published studies in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science: “Plasticity in the morphometrics and movements of an Antarctic apex predator, the leopard seal” in 2022 and “Large and in charge: Cortisol levels vary with sex, diet and body mass in an Antarctic predator, the leopard seal” in 2023. 

Baylor's CEAL LAB Team in Tierra del Fuego
Members of Baylor's CEAL Lab (graduate student Nicholi Brown, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Renato Borras-Chavez, PhD candidate Emily Sperou, PI Dr. Kienle, and Dr. Mike Goebel) in Tierra del Fuego in December 2023. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Kienle, Ph.D.)

The CAREER award will allow Dr. Kienle to continue to seek the answer to questions about the lifespan of leopard seals, why female leopard seals are larger than males and if leopard seals need ice for survival, which will help researchers understand, conserve and protect leopard seals.

The project also will recruit and train a new generation of polar scientists through a research-intensive undergraduate course with Dr. Kienle’s Comparative Ecophysiology of Animals Lab (CEAL) and provide graduate students and post-doctoral fellows with hands-on leadership and mentoring experiences. In addition, Kienle will continue to engage students and the public in scientific research through outreach activities at local, national and international scales.


Sarah Kienle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Baylor University and the principal investigator and director of the Comparative Animal Ecophysiology Lab (CEAL). Her research is broadly focused on understanding how animals work in the context of their environment and tackles broad comparative questions about how animals maximize fitness under different environmental conditions.


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