Biology faculty secure National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation grants
Just shy of a year ago, Loyola University Maryland celebrated the grand opening of a state-of-the-art renovation and expansion of its 30-year-old Donnelly Science Center. The project promised to add an additional 15,000 square feet of classroom, office, meeting, and—perhaps most importantly—laboratory space to support student and faculty research.
Now, three Loyola biology faculty members are embarking on exciting new projects, funded by significant grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), that will continue to strengthen Loyola’s position in the critical science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.
Associate Professor Rebecca Brogan, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Christopher Thompson, Ph.D., got their good news first. The two received a $273,698 grant from the NSF to fund the acquisition of a laser scanning confocal microscope (LSCM). The new microscope, which the professors expect to bring to campus next month, offers two significant benefits for researchers: the ability to image cells and tissues in 3D, and the ability to follow the movement and changes of molecules in cells in real time.
“It’s very uncommon for an undergraduate-focused university like Loyola to have an LSCM on campus,” said Brogan. “These are typically found only at Research I and Research II institutions, and can only be accessed by other faculty through collaborative arrangements and for a few hundred dollars an hour.”
Brogan and Thompson’s grant proposal highlighted the range of projects that will benefit immediately from the LSCM, including five led by Loyola faculty and three by faculty at Towson University, Mount St. Mary’s University, and Washington College, who will be able to access the new equipment at Loyola.
“When we first started working on the grant, we wanted to make it clear that this microscope can be used in wide variety of fields,” said Thompson.
Thompson, for example, will use the LCSM to continue his work exploring the impact of herbal medicines on cell function, monitoring the extent to which specific treatments change the shape and activation state of cells. Brogan, who studies the metabolic regulation of reproduction, will consider the effects of diet on pre-ovulatory eggs. Other projects include examinations of cell death through exposure to wasp venom, drug resistance in breast cancer stem cells, and the disruption of bacterial biofilms by exposure to certain medical and environmental conditions.
All of the participating faculty members, from Loyola and other institutions, are expected to involve undergraduate students heavily in their research. “Together, the eight faculty members will have about 12-14 students per year working with the LCSM,” said Thompson. “To have access to an LCSM at this stage of their educations will set these students apart from their peers at other institutions, and once they become proficient in its use, they will become trainers themselves, and gain further experience helping and training other students. By working in our labs, they’ll cultivate a competitive edge whether they’re thinking of going on to graduate or medical school, an academic career, or directly into the workforce.”
Days later, Assistant Professor of Biology Lisa Scheifele, Ph.D., received good news of her own when the NIH awarded her a $238,120 to support her project, “The Contribution of Fragile Site Structure to Genome Instability in Humanized Yeast.”
“Fragile sites are regions in chromosomes that tend to break, and they are a hallmark of cancer cells,” said Scheifele, who earned her doctorate in cell and molecular biology at Penn State College of Medicine and joined the Loyola faculty in 2009. “Human cells have hundreds of these sites, and some break more frequently than others, but we don’t understand why.”
Scheifele’s project uses yeast cells as a model. The NIH grant will allow her to use technology, including DNA microarrays and next-generation DNA sequencing, which would not otherwise be available to her. “I’ll be able to examine the entire genome at once to see where the chromosomes are breaking. Hopefully, this will help us to learn which sites in the human genome we should be monitoring more closely during cancer progression,” she said.
The grant also provides funding for six undergraduate students to work with Scheifele over the next three summers. “The students will have an opportunity to create the conditions under which the chromosomes break, and to actually determine where the breaks occur in the chromosome.”
She aims to produce at least one journal article and numerous conference presentations as she pursues the project, and anticipates that her student research assistants could have an opportunity to co-author an article with her.
It’s been an exceptional year for Loyola’s science faculty when it comes to federal agency grants. These awards follow Physics Professor Mary Lowe’s NSF grant supporting her efforts to develop physics of medicine course materials, as well as Loyola’s participation in the creation of a national mentoring network for women faculty in the sciences as part of an NSF grant centered at Gonzaga University.