Danae Schulz, an assistant professor of biology at Harvey Mudd College, has been awarded a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation for her research “Characterizing molecular mechanisms that drive life cycle transitions in the African trypanosome.”
The nearly $630,000 award covering a five-year period enables Schulz to pursue research questions in the lab using state-of-the-art technology, including high-throughput sequencing.
“The project’s purpose is to understand how parasites adapt to different environments as they move between organisms,” Schulz says. “The African trypanosome is an example of one such parasite that moves between the blood of infected animals and the tsetse fly. When a tsetse fly bites a human or a hooved animal, parasites are transferred to the bloodstream and cause a fatal disease called African trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness.”
Understanding how the parasites adapt to each environment is key to understanding the dynamics of infection in regions where the disease is endemic.
“Because African trypanosomes diverged very early from other well-studied model organisms, understanding the gene regulation that occurs as parasites adapt to different environments will shed light on how gene regulatory systems evolved,” says Schulz. “This type of sequencing is incredibly powerful but also expensive. We’re happy to have the funding to answer our research questions using modern methods.”
The grant enables Schulz to hire a technician, enabling student researchers to spend more time performing experiments and doing analysis and less time preparing food and growing parasites.
“The technician also will be invaluable in adapting part of our research program to a classroom setting, acting as an essential support system to facilitate the lab class,” Schulz adds.
The study of parasite adaptation in a research lab setting provides young researchers—including first-generation high school and first-year college students underrepresented in STEM fields—the opportunity to forge close connections with a research mentor, which is important for retention in the field, she says.
“Our lab uses a combination of bench science and computational analysis, which is perfect for Harvey Mudd students, since many of them are extremely knowledgeable and skilled with computer programming,” says Schulz.
Currently, two students—Lucy Paddock ’22 and Becca Blyn ’22—are working remotely on a computational project. With Harvey Mudd opening this summer, more bench science will be added, with a team of up to five students working together in the lab.
“Undergraduate students are the main drivers of research in my lab,” says Schulz. “They perform the experiments, conduct analysis and help prepare papers for publication.”
Students also will also be given the opportunity to pursue open-ended projects on parasite adaptation in a classroom laboratory setting, ideally increasing their confidence and interest in joining a research lab, Schulz says.
The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Past HMC faculty recipients include computer science professor Yi-Chieh (Jessica) Wu (2018), computer science professor Jim Boerkoel (2017), physics professor Jason Gallicchio (2020), chemistry professor Lelia Hawkins (2015) and engineering professors Nancy Lape (2009) and Albert Dato (2020).
NSF grants are the largest share of external support for faculty research at Harvey Mudd.