VBRN News & Highlights

VGN Researchers Win National Grants

Amanda Crocker Awarded $340,000 NIH R15 Grant

Middlebury College Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, Dr. Amanda Crocker, was awarded an R15 AREA grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) to fund her research over the next three years.

The grant entitled “Genetic mechanisms of pain integration in the brain to drive avoidance behavior” totals $342,519. This was Crocker’s first R15 grant submission and the project is supported through the NIGMS IDeA Co-funding Initiative.

As Crocker describes, “The grant focuses on understanding what happens at a molecular level in the brain, when an animal experiences a physically painful stimulus. We are particularly interested in the gene expression changes that occur following exposure to electric shock, noxious heat and mechanical stress.” Her research will offer insight into why some people who experience painful stimuli develop post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.

This research builds off of the data that Crocker has collected from her VGN awards over the last four years. She credits VGN with helping her hone how to pitch her ideas in extramural grant proposals. “My most recent [VGN] proposal prior to the submission of this R15 provided significant comments on the proposal and was beneficial in the restructuring of the grant.”

One of the central tenants of the R15 program is to provide undergraduate students biomedical research experiences, which Crocker has done and will continue to do. With anywhere from 4-18 students working in her lab, this grant will contribute to her institution’s culture of research. “Many students need a job to be financially sound at Middlebury and by providing paid positions, I can provide a lab experience for those students who may not be able to volunteer, take a semester for credit or write a thesis due to financial commitments.”

In addition to funding student researchers in her lab, this multidisciplinary research will give students experience in computer science and physics to work with Drs. Andrea Vaccari and Michael Durst (also a VGN investigator) on various aspects of the project.

Preston Garcia Earns $300,000 NSF Grant

Castleton University Associate Professor of Biology, Dr. Preston Garcia has secured a competitive research grant through the National Science Foundation (NSF) which will fund his research until 2021.

The grant, entitled “RUI: Collaborative Research: Understanding the role of a modified phosphotransferase system and a unique two-component signal transduction system in regulating gene expression,” is under the direction of Dr. Garcia at Castleton, in collaboration with Dr. Catalina Arango Pinedo at St Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pa.

The collaborative grant total amount is for $560,082, with $308,011 going to Castleton University and $252,071 going to St. Joseph’s University.

“Dr. Arango Pindeo and I are excited that our proposal was well reviewed by our peers and was awarded funding. Competing with scientists at research schools across the United States for this funding validates the hard work we have done to establish our science department at Castleton as one that provides students with the same research experiences as larger research-focused schools. With financial support to pay up to 12 Castleton students and six local high school students, we can continue to train students in cutting-edge research.”

Dr. Garcia’s efforts to grow research opportunities at Castleton have impacted 11 independent research students and resulted in over $330,000 grant dollars since he arrived at Castleton. Most of that money has been awarded by the Vermont Genetics Network (VGN), which provides support for students and faculty members conducting biomedical related research. According to Dr. Garcia, this NSF funding would not be possible without the financial and professional support from VGN. “The goal of VGN is to have research faculty ‘graduate’ to independent federal funding, which I have now done. I would not have had the data or grant writing skills to be competitive for federal funding without VGN.”

Dr. Garcia’s research is focused on bacteria, which have the ability to directly sense their environment and change their behavior according to their surroundings. While these changes can be seen visually, the intricate genetic processes that lead to the changes are not fully understood. This project will investigate some of the ways in which bacteria carry out these processes using Sinorhizobium meliloti as a model. S. meliloti is a member of a larger group of bacteria called rhizobia, and beneficially infects legumes and provides useable nitrogen to increase crop yield. An efficient and productive rhizobium infection reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. Expanding our knowledge of the genetic systems that control the behavior of this bacterium has the potential to allow manipulation to optimize the rhizobium-plant interaction.

According to Garcia, “To effectively conduct research across educational levels ranging from high school to graduate school is a great opportunity for all involved. Our research will help to answer fundamental biological questions about bacterial communication, especially how bacteria beneficially infect plants, which has direct impacts on the agricultural industry.”