Inside USD

Focus of NSF Grant is Advanced Research

Friday, August 3, 2012

Patrick in front of a confocal image of a larval mosquito hindgut labeled for two different ion transporter proteins

USD Associate Professor of Biology Marjorie Patrick studies insects, fish and other animal species that can tolerate unusual water chemistry, such as acid pH or high salinity. A laser scanning confocal microscope “is essential in providing high-resolution, three-dimensional images to study the proteins involved in moving ions across the cells of organs such as fish gills that are important in maintaining ion and water balance for aquatic animals,” she said.

A $415,000 National Science Foundation grant, awarded late last month, will provide that capability. The funds will go toward toward purchasing a high-tech microscope. Other USD professors and their students will also be able to advance their work in physiology, biophysics, neurobiology and other topics with the award.

Associate Professor of Biology Curtis Loer, whose laboratory works with the 1,000-cell roundworm C. elegans, using molecular genetics to understand how genes function to regulate and pattern its simple nervous system. “We will use the microscope to examine nerve cell structure in exquisite detail, and to determine precisely where proteins are located within a cell,” he said.  This will advance our study of gene function in nerve cells and of the evolution of nervous system structure and function.”

“USD has a strong commitment to both faculty and undergraduate research and education,” said Patrick. “The acquisition of this versatile and powerful microscope represents a significant step toward achieving those goals.”

Fluorescent tag of an ion transporter protein on mosquito larval tissue

In the Department of Physics, Assistant Professor Rae Anderson will be using the microscope to explore the dynamics and interaction forces between DNA molecules that could help develop the next generation of bulletproof clothing and material.

Patrick is the principal investigator on the grant. The co-principal investigators include Loer, Anderson and Biology Professors Lisa Baird and Richard Gonzalez. Natalie Prigozhina, adjunct assistant professor, will serve as the microscope facility manager.

USD researchers actively involve undergraduates and even high school students in their work, including students from Mater Dei High School in the South Bay. USD has established programs to foster diversity in the sciences for first-generation college students and underrepresented groups. At USD 58 percent of the undergraduate population is female and 20 percent comes from underrepresented groups.

“The state-of-the art instrument will help attract new students to the sciences and enrich the experiences of students already studying in the areas of science and technology,” Patrick said. “The ability for students to work directly with faculty in a laboratory using advanced microscopy is an opportunity unique to an undergraduate institution like USD.”

–  Liz Harman

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