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Biology Professors Receive $98,928 NSF Grant

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    Maria Todd (right) and Maria Cuevas (left) have received a $98,928 grant from the National Science Foundation for further their research on a membrane protein known as claudin-3.

Grant will enable department to purchase new equipment for research, teaching

Two Southwestern biology professors have received a $98,928 grant from the National Science Foundation that will enable them to purchase several key pieces of equipment for their teaching and research.

Maria Todd, assistant professor of biology, and Maria Cuevas, associate professor of biology, applied for the grant to help further their research on a membrane protein known as claudin-3. The study of claudins is relatively new, since the family of proteins was only discovered a decade ago. Claudins are found in tight junctions, which connect adjacent cells and act as a barrier to the movement of substances between cells.

“Currently, there is little information about the critical roles of each of the 24 different types of human claudin proteins in particular cell types,” Todd said. “It’s a very exciting field and we’re in on the ground floor.”

Todd and Cuevas are focusing their research on the function of human claudin-3 in breast cells. By manipulating the cellular levels of claudin-3 protein with small interference RNA (siRNA), they hope to determine its role in critical processes such as cell motility (migration), invasion and signaling.

Todd and a former Southwestern student, Brytanie Piana (’08), conducted claudin-3 siRNA studies in the summer of 2007. Cuevas joined the project in the summer of 2008, along with Rebecca Sheller, an associate professor of biology. Sheller spent her sabbatical last year optimizing the measurement of tight junction strength between breast cells that produced different levels of claudin-3 protein. During her sabbatical this fall, Cuevas will install and optimize the equipment along with two student researchers.

The NSF grant will enable Todd and Cuevas to purchase three new pieces of equipment: a benchtop flow cytometer, a cell counter, and a phase-contrast microscope with digital camera and computer.

Until now, Todd has been sending her samples to the Texas A&M Health Science Center in Temple when she needed the use of a flow cytometer for cell cycle analysis.

Cuevas said the automatic cell counter will do in five minutes what currently takes her three to four hours to do.

“This new equipment will increase the efficiency and accuracy of cell counting, which is important for the collection of high-quality data for publication,” Cuevas said.

The phase-contrast microscope currently at Southwestern is not equipped with a camera and computer. Todd said the new microscope that can be connected to a computer will enable them to show students real-time changes in the appearance and motility of cells on a computer screen.

“It will be a wonderful teaching tool,” she said.

The grant was funded through the NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation Program, which is designed to provide researchers and students with access to state-of-the-art scientific and engineering equipment. The program is particularly interested in funding instrumentation that will be shared among different research groups. Several other Southwestern faculty members will be able to use the equipment in their research.

Todd and Cuevas said students also will benefit from having the use of this equipment.

“Entry into Ph.D. programs requires extensive research experience using state-of-the-art equipment,” Todd said. “This will make our students much stronger candidates for entry into top graduate schools.”

Cuevas has been at Southwestern since 2003 and Todd has been at Southwestern since 2004. The majority of students who have worked with them in their labs have been accepted either into Ph.D. programs or into medical school.