Duke Announces 2022 DST Spark Seed Grant Winners

The Office of 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 and mid-career faculty from across campus and the School of Medicine who were selected from a pool of 52 finalists for coming up with innovative and creative ideas in pursuit of new directions. and enhancing research and scholarship at Duke.

“As new scientific discoveries and breakthroughs continue to surface at Duke, we are excited about the innovative ideas our faculty has to address the world’s most pressing challenges through research,” said Jenny Lodge, vice president. from Duke for Research and Innovation. “The proposals from the winners of this year’s DST Spark Seed Grants exemplify how research can improve lives – and we look forward to the accomplishments of each PI over the next year.”

Engineering

BIOMEDICAL GENIUS

Project: Enable unbiased discovery of force-sensitive protein-protein interactions
IP: Brenton Hoffman, James L. and Elizabeth M. Vincent Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering

Brenton Hoffman studies how the cells of the body react when they are crushed or stretched. His team has developed a variety of sensors that measure, at the molecular level, the effect of these forces on specific proteins and their function in living cells. But proteins rarely act alone. With the support of a DST Spark Seed Grant, he plans to create technologies that will allow, for the first time, to understand how mechanical forces influence the networks of proteins that associate in the molecular machinery of the cell. Hoffman says the work could lead to new treatments for conditions such as cancer and heart disease.

Environment

ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE AND POLICY

Project: New dimensions of tropical ecology: effects of megafauna on the biogeochemical cycle in 3D
IP: John Poulsen, Associate Professor of Tropical Ecology

John Poulsen, George Thomas Leach Associate Professor of Ecological Sciences, will use terrestrial lidar scanning to measure forest structure in areas of Gabon with and without forest elephants with the aim of measuring the influence of large animals on carbon sequestration. Two years later, the same measures will be repeated. The analysis will link with professors of economics and computer science to quantify the value and impact of large herbivores on the dynamics of climate change.

John Poulsen, Associate Professor of Tropical Ecology

MARINE SCIENCE AND CONSERVATION

Project: Positive carbon dioxide removal through carbonate conversion and seaweed bioproducts
IP: Zackary Johnson, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology in Marine Science

To fight global warming, we need techniques that suck up greenhouse gases, and Duke’s Zackary Johnson envisions a way to do just that: with tiny algae from the ocean. Johnson is working on a project to capture carbon dioxide from power plant smokestacks and convert it to bicarbonate, which is then added to seaweed to stimulate their growth. Johnson says the algae-based system could in turn provide heat, power and as much protein as soybeans, making it a potential source of animal feed that doesn’t compete with farmland. or fresh water. His method is still in the demonstration phase, but the DST Spark Seed Grant will help him take the concept out of the lab and show if it could be commercially viable on a larger scale.

Zackary Johnson, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology in Marine Science

Medicine

BIOSTATISTICS AND BIOINFORMATICS

Project: Using Deep Learning to Train a Single-Molecule DNA Sequencer to Accurately Identify DNA Lesions
IP: Raluca Gordan, Associate Professor of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics, Computer Science, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

Raluca Gordan develops machine learning techniques for sequencing damaged DNA, which standard DNA sequencing technologies cannot handle. She hopes to use these techniques to better understand how proteins bind to damaged sites in the human genome and inhibit their repair, and whether this binding process gives rise to mutations that can lead to diseases such as cancer.

Raluca Gordan, Associate Professor of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics, Computer Science, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

CELLULAR BIOLOGY

Project: Synchronized clocks in Zebrafish Patterning
IP: Stefano Di Talia, Associate Professor of Cellular Biology and Orthopedics

Stefano Di Talia, associate professor of cell biology, will study oscillations in the activity of a protein kinase called Erk, which appears to be the timekeeper that signals the regular patterning of vertebral segments in the spine of a developing zebrafish. His group recently discovered that Erk activity oscillates throughout the notochord and dictates when vertebral precursors begin to form. The group hopes to establish which mechanism controls Erk’s oscillations and generate enough data from this zebrafish work to secure more funding.

Stefano Di Talia, Associate Professor of Cellular Biology and Orthopedics

MOLECULAR GENETICS AND MICROBIOLOGY

Project: Interrogating subcellular gene expression in the developing brain
IP: Debra Silver, Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Cell Biology and Neurobiology

Debra Silver, Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, will study messenger RNA localization and localized gene translation in cells of the nervous system. These processes are essential for guiding new connections in a developing brain and are particularly concentrated in only one part of the neural progenitor cells. The project will attempt to develop a new technology to measure and control gene expression in a single part of the cell. Developing new technology is usually not funded by the 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. .

Debra Silver, Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Cell Biology and Neurobiology

NEPHROLOGY

Project: Harnessing female resiliency factors to promote kidney repair
IP: Tomokazu Souma, Assistant Professor of Medicine

Tomokazu Souma, MD, assistant professor of nephrology and affiliated with the Duke Regeneration Center, will use human-derived kidney organoids – organs in a dish – to identify new therapies aimed at improving kidney repair and regeneration. Specifically, her lab hopes to follow up on a recent discovery that women have a greater resistance to acute kidney injury. They would like to see if these “female resistance factors” could be harnessed to treat kidney disease.

Tomokazu Souma, Assistant Professor of Medicine

Natural Sciences

BIOLOGY

Project: Integration of metabolomics and proteomics platforms to resolve the roles of Rad6 in energy production and stress resistance
IP: Gustavo Silva, assistant professor of biology

Gustavo Silva, assistant professor of biology, will build on his previous findings in yeast and human cells to better understand the cellular response to oxidative stress – an overabundance of reactive oxygen molecules. His group has identified new links between protein synthesis and energy production during stress, and elucidating this process requires tracking changes in the abundance of specific metabolites, which is a whole new direction for his laboratory. The Spark grant should help them develop new technologies and gather enough information for follow-on grant applications.

Gustavo Silva, assistant professor of biology

Public policy

Project: K-12 Educational Inequalities and Public Policy Preferences
IP: Sarah Komisarow, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics

When it comes to school funding, education policy expert Sarah Komisarow says more and more US school districts are considering a new formula: one based on student need. 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 on educational inequalities affects people’s preferences for different K-12 spending policies, including approaches equity-based policies that direct more financial resources to disadvantaged students.

Sarah Komisarow, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics

To learn more about Duke Science and Technology (DST) Spark Seed Grant winners, visit research.duke.edu.

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