MC successfully completes NSF grant-funded project

MC successfully completes NSF grant-funded project

Sept. 12, 2012
Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications

The National Science Foundation (NSF) grant-supported research on yeast cells conducted at Maryville College has drawn to a close after three years, but what 18 undergraduates have learned will last a lifetime.

And according to Dr. Jennifer Brigati, the research conducted likely will influence how students spend those lifetimes professionally.

“I really like the way this project has given students real experience in the laboratory,” said Brigati, an associate professor of biology at Maryville College and one of the principal investigators of the $440,000 grant from NSF. “Students have really experienced the trials and tribulations of working on a research project.”

Named an administrator of the grant in 2010, Maryville College was approved to receive $440,000 over three years. Brigati, along with Dr. Steven Wright from Carson-Newman College, Dr. D. Grant Willhite from Tennessee Wesleyan College and Dr. Jeffrey Becker from the University of Tennessee, worked with 18 undergraduate students (nine from Maryville College) in researching the interactions of pathways controlled by the yeast’s two G protein-coupled receptors.

One receptor in brewer’s yeast is glucose-sensing and concerned with detecting nutrients required for survival; the other is pheromone-sensing and responsible for mating. Work in the Maryville College laboratories focused on the hypothesis that the pathways triggered by the two receptors are interdependent.

“We found significant evidence that the mating pathway is dependent on the nutrient-sensing pathway, and vice versa,” Brigati said.

She and students have presented their findings at several conferences, including last year’s gathering of the American Society for Cell Biology. They plan to present at more this year, including the American Society for Microbiology Kentucky-Tennessee Branch Meeting, which the College is hosting this fall.

When interviewed in early August, Brigati said she and others were in the process of wrapping up the project and completing articles that will be sent to scientific journals for publication. The final report to the NSF is due in December.

Supporting young scientists

While their research contributes data to an important question in biology – one that has human health implications – the NSF also should be pleased with the impact the undergraduate research experience has had on young scientists.

“The NSF likes to support programs that give research experience to students who have research-career goals,” Brigati explained, adding that preference is given to students who have not had previous research experience.

In selecting Maryville College’s nine undergraduates for the yeast cell research, Brigati considered students’ grade point average, letters of recommendation and their completed coursework. The lab work required some knowledge of genetics, which is taught in the sophomore year, so most of the undergraduates selected over the three years were rising juniors and seniors.

“At first, there’s always a learning curve when you’re working with undergraduates,” Brigati explained, “but they always step it up. After two weeks, they’re getting a lot done.”

Students and faculty members worked in a biology laboratory in Sutton Science Center from June 4 until Aug. 10. Hours were 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, although some experiments required time on Saturdays.

Each student was paid a $4,000 stipend, and Maryville College provided free housing for the MC students. Undergraduates from other schools were offered housing at a reduced cost.

Creating a graduate-school experience

Students were required to write progress reports and present their findings during weekly lab meetings. At the conclusion of the summer, every participant was required to write a summary report, thoroughly detailing their results and methods.

“It’s what they would do in graduate school,” Brigati explained, adding that creating a near graduate-school experience was important to her.

“It’s true research,” she said of the NSF project. “And they’ve learned that some things just aren’t going to work out. In science, sometimes the answer is ‘no.’ The ‘re’ in ‘research’ stands for ‘repeat.’”

Working closely with a mentor was another “real world” lab experience for the participants.

“Through this [experience], students get to see the way scientists work and guide a project,” Brigati explained. “That perspective will help them identify what to look for in a mentor when they go to graduate school.”

The MC professor said she took time in the laboratory to guide conversations toward graduate school preparation and graduate test preparation, as well.

Growth and insight

As a part of evaluation and assessment of the NSF project, Brigati surveyed the students at the beginning and end of the summers. The responses indicated growth in three key areas: understanding of the research process, laboratory skills and comfort with reading primary scientific literature.

At least one Maryville College undergraduate used the NSF project to determine his Senior Study topic. A few other graduates have gone on to medical and veterinary schools.

Sometimes, an intense research experience reveals to students that a career in the lab isn’t for them.

“And that’s just as valuable,” Brigati said.

For Elisabeth Klouda, a senior biochemistry major from Knoxville, Tenn., working on the NSF project this summer reinforced her plans to pursue an MD/PhD path following graduation from Maryville College next May.

With such dual-degree training, she’ll be able to practice medicine, research and teach.

“I’ve enjoyed all the different research projects and have been surprised at how involved we were allowed to be in stating the hypotheses,” she said during an early August interview. “For some of the research, our faculty members didn’t know what was going to happen. The [results] have been a lot less predictable than they are in a lab connected to a course. It’s exciting!”

This summer, Klouda studied potential interactions between the mating and glucose-sensing pathways in yeast, using several different techniques.

“She used a process known as co-immunoprecipitation to demonstrate physical interactions between proteins in the two pathways. This allowed her to apply numerous techniques that she had learned in her biochemistry class to a real research project,” Brigati explained. “She also did growth inhibition assays to determine whether or not strains lacking components of the glucose-sensing pathway would respond normally to pheromone. This part of the project allowed her to use techniques she learned in her microbiology class.

“Elisabeth performed a third type of assay to determine whether or not strains lacking certain components of the glucose-sensing pathway could ‘turn on’ genes required for mating,” the professor continued. “Again, this allowed her to see a real-life example of concepts learned in the classroom.”

Paving the way for more grants

Competition for NSF grants is intense. Because the foundation is the premier supporting agency for cutting-edge research in the country, it receives tens of thousands of proposals each year from a variety of educational institutions and is able to fund just a fraction of them.

“I have submitted multiple proposals for grants in the past,” Brigati said, adding that she hopes the success of this $440,000 grant boosts the College’s name among NSF administrators.

“With us having had a successful project, I hope it paves the way for future funding from the NSF,” she said. “Maybe it already has.”

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,197.