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Six professors awarded new biomedical science grants

The University of Maine’s newly created Biomedical Science Accelerator Fund awarded grants this week to six assistant professors in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture. Each of these grants are intended to support two-year-long faculty research projects, their generation of scientific data necessary to attract funding from prized, external grants, and the eventual development of larger scientific projects. Mid-career faculty members, who are currently involved with research projects, are expected to benefit most immediately from the grants.

Among this year’s honorees, five — Benjamin King, Melissa Maginnis, Sally Molloy, Melody Neely and Rob Wheeler — are professors in the Department of Molecular and Biomedical Sciences. The final honoree, Kristy Townsend, is a professor in the School of Biology and Ecology. Neely is the only participant to be involved in multiple awarded projects — one with Molloy and another with Wheeler.

The Biomedical Science Accelerator Fund grants can be awarded to any research project whose principal investigator is a faculty member in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture, regardless of whether they have been recently hired or are currently tenured faculty. Though the grants can be used to boost graduate student stipends, graduate students themselves are ineligible.

Of the first four awarded grants, two study the effects of infectious viruses and bacteria on human immune systems; Maginnis and King’s ‘Defining cell-type specific differences in transcriptional regulation of viral infection,’ was given a $30,000 grant to further scientific understanding of how the JC polyomavirus, commonly found in human kidneys, is able to infect the central nervous system in certain, immunocompromised individuals. Neely and Molloy’s ‘Investigation of the role of bacteriophages in Streptococcus agalactiae virulence,’ which was also awarded $30,000, is focused on identifying genetic markers associated with the highly infective pathogen Streptococcus B, which can become fatal in people with weakened immune systems.

Wheeler and Neely’s ‘Polymicrobial virulence and treatment: using zebrafish to untangle a tri-kingdom dialog,’ the third and final collaborative project awarded a Biomedical Science Accelerator Fund grant, was given $35,000 in funds toward recruiting a graduate student to study the co-infection mechanisms of commonly acquired pathogens in zebrafish. This will be the first study of its kind to examine polymicrobial infections and antimicrobial vaccinations in living organisms.    

Kristy Townsend, the year’s sole grantee, was given $17,000 to assist a graduate student who will gather data on whether stem cell markers that are found in mice are also present in the human brain. If such a connection is made, it could have positive effects in treating and preventing neurodegenerative conditions in humans.

The Biomedical Science Accelerator Fund grants were made possible by C. Ann Merrifield, an alumna who received her bachelor’s degree in zoology in `73, and her masters in education in `75. She then went on to obtain her MBA from the Tucke School at Dartmouth and enjoyed a successful career in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Merrifield’s intention in bestowing her endowment was to both provide funds for early and mid-career faculty who may be in need of “bridge funding” to acquire the data necessary for more competitive grants from federal sources, and to encourage other UMaine alumni and friends to join her in supporting basic science and making the impact of such research visible to the public. 

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