The Office for Research and Innovation has awarded funding to nine best-in-class projects for the inaugural Duke Science and Technology (DST) Spark Seed Grant program. This year’s winners include early- to mid-career faculty from across campus and the School of Medicine who were selected from a pool of 52 finalists for delivering innovative and creative ideas in pursuit of new directions and the enhancement of research and scholarship at Duke.
“As new scientific discoveries and breakthroughs continue to surface at Duke, we’re excited by the novel ideas that our faculty have for tackling the world’s most pressing challenges through research” said Jenny Lodge, Duke’s vice president for Research & Innovation. “The proposals of this year’s DST Spark Seed Grants winners embody how research can improve lives — and we look forward to each PI’s accomplishments over the next year.”
Project: Enabling Unbiased Discovery of Force-Sensitive Protein-Protein Interactions
PI: Brenton Hoffman, James L. and Elizabeth M. Vincent Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering
Brenton Hoffman studies how the cells of the body respond to getting squished or stretched. His team has developed a variety of sensors that measure, on a molecular level, the effect of such forces on specific proteins and their function in living cells. But proteins rarely act alone. With support from a DST Spark Seed Grant, he plans to create technologies that will make it possible, for the first time, to understand how mechanical forces influence the networks of proteins that team up in the molecular machinery of the cell. Hoffman says the work could lead to new treatments for conditions such as cancer and heart disease.
ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES AND POLICY
Project: New Dimensions in Tropical Ecology: Megafaunal Effects on Biogeochemical Cycling in 3-D
PI: John Poulsen, Associate Professor of Tropical Ecology
John Poulsen, the George Thomas Leach associate professor of ecological sciences, will be using terrestrial lidar scanning to measure forest structure in areas of Gabon that are with and without forest elephants in an attempt to measure the influence large animals have on carbon capture. Two years later, the same measurements will be repeated. The analysis will build connections with faculty in economics and computer science to quantify the value and impact of large herbivores on climate change dynamics.
MARINE SCIENCE AND CONSERVATION
Project: Revenue Positive Carbon Dioxide Removal Enabled by Carbonate Conversion and Marine Algae Bioproducts
PI: Zackary Johnson, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology in Marine Science
To combat global warming, we need techniques that suck up greenhouse gases, and Duke’s Zackary Johnson envisions a way to do that: with tiny algae from the ocean. Johnson has been working on a project to capture carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of power plants and convert it into bicarbonate, which is then added to marine algae to boost their growth. Johnson says that the algae-based system could in turn provide heat, electricity and as much protein as soybeans – making them a potential source of animal feed that wouldn’t compete for farmland or freshwater. His method is still in the demonstration phase, but the DST Spark Seed Grant will help him take the concept from the lab and show whether it could be commercially viable at larger scales.
BIOSTATISTICS AND BIOINFORMATICS
Project: Using Deep Learning To Train a Single-molecule DNA Sequencer to Accurately Identify DNA Lesions
PI: Raluca Gordan, Associate Professor of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, Computer Science, and Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
Raluca Gordan is developing machine learning techniques for sequencing damaged DNA, which standard DNA sequencing technologies can’t handle. She hopes to use these techniques to better understand how proteins bind to damaged sites within the human genome and inhibit their repair, and whether this binding process gives rise to mutations that can lead to diseases such as cancer.
Project: Synchronized Clocks in Zebrafish Patterning
PI: Stefano Di Talia, Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Orthopaedics
Stefano Di Talia, an associate professor of cell biology, will be studying oscillations in the activity of a kinase protein called Erk, which appears to be the timekeeper that signals regular patterning of vertebral segments in a developing zebrafish’s spine. His group has recently discovered that Erk activity oscillates across the entire notochord and dictates the time at which precursors of the vertebrae begin to form. The group hopes to establish which mechanism controls the Erk oscillations and build enough data from this work in zebrafish to secure greater grant funding.
MOLECULAR GENETICS AND MICROBIOLOGY
Project: Interrogating Subcellular Gene Expression in the Developing Brain
PI: Debra Silver, Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Cell Biology, and Neurobiology
Debra Silver, an associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, will be studying the localization of messenger RNA and localized gene translation in nervous system cells. These processes are key to guiding new connections in a developing brain and are particularly focused in just one part of neural progenitor cells. The project will be trying to develop a new technology to measure and control gene expression in just one part of the cell. Developing a new technology is not typically funded by NIH, but mastering the technique could open up many new grant opportunities and be valuable for understanding local gene expression in systems beyond the brain.
Project: Harnessing Female Resilience Factors to Promote Renal Repair
PI: Tomokazu Souma, Assistant Professor of Medicine
Tomokazu Souma, MD, an assistant professor of nephrology and affiliate of the Duke Regeneration Center, will be using human-derived kidney organoids – organs in a dish – to identify new therapies to improve kidney repair and regeneration. Specifically, his lab hopes to follow up on a recent finding that females have greater resistance to acute kidney injury. They would like to see if these ‘female resistance factors’ could be harnessed to treat kidney disease.
Project: Integration of Metabolomics and Proteomics Platforms To Resolve Rad6 Roles in Energy Production and Stress Resistance
PI: Gustavo Silva, Assistant Professor of Biology
Gustavo Silva, an assistant professor of biology, will be building on his earlier findings in yeast and human cells to better understand the cell’s response to oxidative stress – an overabundance of reactive oxygen molecules. His group identified new links between protein synthesis and energy production during stress, and the elucidation of this process requires tracking changes in the abundance of specific metabolites, which is a completely new direction for his lab. The Spark grant should help them develop new technologies and gather sufficient information for follow-up grant applications.
Project: K-12 Educational Inequality and Public Policy Preferences
PI: Sarah Komisarow, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics
When it comes to school funding, education policy expert Sarah Komisarow says more U.S. school districts are considering a new formula: one based on the needs of students. The idea is that some students have more needs than others, and schools that serve students with greater needs — because they are learning English, or living with a disability, for example — should get more funds. The DST Spark Seed Grant will allow Komisarow to collect much-needed data on how information about educational inequality affects people’s preferences for different K-12 spending policies, including equity-based approaches that direct more financial resources to disadvantaged students.
To learn more about the Duke Science and Technology (DST) Spark Seed Grant winners, visit research.duke.edu.