Van Houtan Receives Presidential Early Career Award

July 22, 2012

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

DURHAM, NC -- Kyle S. Van Houtan, fisheries research ecologist at NOAA and adjunct associate professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has received a prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Van Houtan was one of 94 recipients named to the award today by President Barack Obama.

The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Research by Van Houtan, who leads NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Turtle Assessment Program in Honolulu, Hawaii, has demonstrated that recent changes in the ocean environment and climate have had profound effects on sea turtle populations. 

His studies have found that long-term warming and cooling ocean cycles are the largest influence to nesting sea turtle populations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The ocean cycles regulate the turtles’ food supply and thus affect two key life stages—the hatchlings’ survival and the nesting females’ capacity to migrate and lay eggs.

“Unlike birds or mammals, for example, sea turtles get zero parental investment,” Van Houtan says.  “The climate is essentially their parent. As a result, the number of nesters that we see on a beach in any given year is mostly a reflection of the climate conditions decades ago when the females that are nesting today were born.”

In an article recently published in the journal PLoS ONE, Van Houtan showed that up to 90 percent of adult sea turtle population variability during the past several decades is regulated by climate. Van Houtan’s population modeling has helped NOAA understand the status of sea turtle populations and forecast future sea turtle populations. 

In addition to his research, Van Houtan actively works to increase the number and diversity of marine scientists in the Pacific Islands. He has co-taught a course for professors from small, poorly-funded community colleges and universities from across the U.S. Pacific Island territories, and he also mentors undergraduate students who work in his lab on research that examines how land use and coastal runoff contributes to sea turtle tumors.

Van Houtan earned his doctorate in ecology from the Nicholas School in 2006 under the supervision of faculty advisor Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology. Van Houtan joined NOAA in 2009.  His research has been published in peer-reviewed journals including Nature, Ecology Letters, PLoS ONE andConservation Biology, and has received widespread media coverage in media outlets including National Geographic and The New York Times. He is the editor, with Michael Northcott, of “Diversity and Dominion: Dialogues in Ecology, Ethics, and Theology” (Wipf and Stock, 2010).

To learn more about Van Houtan and his prestigious new award, go to