On the Cutting Edge

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Researchers push boundaries of scientific discoveries

The way Jonathan McMurry sees it, Kennesaw State University is just right. The College of Science and Mathematics (CSM) is small enough to offer undergraduate students chances for hands-on research, using the latest technology. It is also large enough to attract faculty dedicated not only to teaching, but also to basic research – the kind that pushes boundaries and establishes the foundation for major discoveries.

The Science Laboratory, with its gleaming teaching and research labs, opened in fall 2012. Over the last several years, grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have permitted faculty in the college to conduct high-level research and acquire an array of instruments that may be common at larger research institutions, but are rare for a newer school, like Kennesaw State, to have.

“If you go to a research university like Georgia Tech, you are going to be working with world-class researchers. But it’s like the major leagues – regular people don’t play catch with (Atlanta Braves first baseman) Freddy Freeman,” said McMurry, an associate professor of biochemistry. McMurry added a new job to his teaching and research duties in August when he became CSM’s first associate dean of research.

“If you go to a smaller university, you get more interaction with faculty, but they are not doing cutting-edge research. So students don’t get that ‘major league’ training. We are in a really sweet spot in terms of the accelerating pace and quality of our research and our teaching missions,” McMurry said.

As associate dean of research, McMurry’s job is multifaceted. He helps ensure his colleagues’ teaching schedules allow ample time for research and works behind the scenes to make connections with researchers nationally and internationally, which offers chances for collaborations. He must also go after grants to support research under way at the college.

But the key for CSM, and for McMurry, is building partnerships among professors at Kennesaw State and at other institutions, across disciplines — chemistry, biochemistry, biology, computer science and statistics.

For example, an NSF grant is funding a partnership between the University of Georgia and Kennesaw State on the gastric pathogen, Helicobacter pylori, which causes gastritis, stomach ulcers and gastric cancers. McMurry and Tim Hoover, chair of the Department of Microbiology at UGA, are the lead researchers on the grant.

One of Hoover’s students is visiting Kennesaw State to use one of the instruments in the lab, an optical biosensor. “While they have biosensors at UGA, they are not readily available to all researchers,” he said.

Having cutting-edge research tools like the optical biosensor and making it accessible to faculty and students at Kennesaw State is generating a lot of interest from institutions across the country.

“We have equipment here — two optical biosensor machines funded primarily through NSF grants — that is mostly found in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, very few research institutions have one of these machines let alone both,” said McMurry. “We have several faculty working in this area who wanted to use this equipment to address various research and being able to secure these biosensors not only helps those who are here, it also helps attract other researchers and raises the profile of the College and the University.”

In addition to faculty researchers, McMurry said that the College is using the biosensor instruments to teach and train undergraduate students, which is a rare experience providing them with knowledge and skills that is leading to jobs and other opportunities after they leave KSU.

Louis Kraft, a 2008 graduate of KSU’s College of Science and Math, was the first student to use the biosensor and helped the College in its initial research efforts in using the instrument. After graduation, Kraft went on to Vanderbilt University, where he will receive his Ph.D. in May 2014. He has already lined up a post-doctoral position at Harvard University working for one of the foremost experts in chemical biology.

Cells hold valuable clues

Other instruments are also providing CSM’s scientists with the ability to study different organisms. They want to understand how certain systems form and how they function. By understanding these fundamental questions, they hope to contribute to the knowledge of what causes diseases or disorders.

A group of scientists shares CSM’s confocal microscope, which uses laser light to get clear, three-dimensional images of cells. Among them are biologists Martin Hudson and Marcus Davis.

“You have to be able to get deep within that critter and do your microscopy and see what your cells are doing through time and space,” said Hudson, an assistant professor of biology who studies the stem cells of mice. He wants to understand how they move, develop and grow into the cells of the nervous system.

“Stem cells offer great hope for personalized medicine and drug discovery,” Hudson said.

Davis, an associate professor of biology, studies the evolutionary process in fish, exploring how fins became limbs. He also looks at the genes of sturgeon and sharks to learn how they make cartilage.

“These fish have some genetic super powers we need to understand,” Davis said. “They continue to make cartilage throughout their lives, whereas we humans stop that process and end up with arthritis.”

The search for answers

Two established researchers, Susan Smith and Michael Van Dyke, joined the College in 2013. Smith, an associate professor of biology, came from Emory University, bringing with her research into the proteins that control signals within cells. When the signals go wrong, this can lead to diseases and have been implicated in the development of certain cancers.

“A lot of drug companies are very interested in how to control signaling proteins and their production,” Smith said.

The signaling system may also play a role in bone regrowth. “So there are reasons to be interested in controlling this protein in some of its other roles,” Smith said. “By understanding the important features of the protein we may be able to help alleviate human diseases.”

Van Dyke was a researcher at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He arrived at Kennesaw State after three years at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. Van Dyke brought with him a $220,000 NIH grant to study a strain of E. coli. Although scientists have sequenced its DNA, they still don’t know all there is to know about the organism.

At Kennesaw State, Van Dyke has found “a nice balance between teaching and research,” he said. “It’s all going to come together and be a nice foundation for Kennesaw State.”