MC approved for $440,000 NSF grant for yeast cell research

Feb. 4, 2010
Contact: Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications
865.981.8207; karen.eldridge@maryvillecollege.edu

Maryville College has been chosen to be the administrator of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant valued at $440,000 over three years.

According to Dr. Jennifer Brigati, assistant professor of biology and one of the principal investigators of the grant, the money will fund yeast cell research led by her, Dr. Steven Wright from Carson-Newman College, Dr. D. Grant Willhite from Tennessee Wesleyan College and Dr. Jeffrey Becker from the University of Tennessee.

But according to Brigati, undergraduate biology students at the four colleges may be the biggest winners in the grant awarding. Among other initiatives, the NSF is funding a total of 18 student stipends for three summers starting in 2010, allowing them to collaborate with the professors on the project (at Maryville College or UT) and then at their home institutions during the academic year.

“This is a great opportunity for students,” Brigati explained. “It exposes them to current molecular biology research and allows them to learn from faculty at other institutions. Students will be involved in the design, implementation, interpretation and dissemination of the results of their own experiments in a community of peers.

“And because the project will inform professors' teaching in the laboratory,” the professor continued, “the science education of hundreds of students at the four institutions will be enhanced. For Maryville College, because we are the administrator, the grant will create more of a vibrant atmosphere of research here.”

Dr. Jeff Fager, vice president and dean of the College, agreed.

“The National Science Foundation is the premier supporting agency for cutting-edge research in the country; therefore, grant selection is very competitive,” he said. “Dr. Brigati has put Maryville College in very elite company.”

According to Brigati, this NSF-funded project will be focused on studying the interactions of the organism's two G protein-coupled receptors. One is glucose-sensing and concerned with detecting nutrients required for survival; the other is pheromone-sensing and responsible for mating. The project will examine the hypothesis that the two receptors are interdependent.

Human applications of the proposed research include a better understanding of medical issues, including diabetes.

“Yeast is an organism that scientists use frequently in research because its cells are similar to those in animals, but there are still many unknowns,” she explained, “so just having a good sense of that biology is a good goal [of the project].”

From 2000 until 2006, Maryville College Chemistry Professor Dr. Terry Bunde collaborated with Wright and Willhite on similar research funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Appalachian College Association. Approximately 20 Maryville College students were involved in the project during those years.

Bunde said the proposed research will build on what he and other colleagues compiled but take a different direction. With Brigati's background, the current project will involve more molecular genetics than previous work.

An Auburn University graduate who earned her Ph.D. in biomedical sciences, Brigati's area of expertise is bacteria and phage display. An intensive research project involving yeast is one she said she's looking forward to.

“This will be new for me,” she said. “It's a stretch, but I like being stretched.”