Biology's Ferguson continuing research on disease with $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation

Thursday September 15, 2016Lisa Eikenburg

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Fredonia Biology Associate Professor Scott Ferguson continues his research, aided by a $250,000 Research in Undergraduate Institutions grant from the National Science Foundation. The funding allows him to conduct the three-year research project, “Genetic Analysis of Gurken Translational Control in Drosophila,” that has the potential to assess how humans develop and are affected by disease.

As the largest award ever made to a Fredonia Biology faculty member, the grant has substantially increased the capacity for campus research activities and created extraordinary learning opportunities for upper-level students.

Key elements of the grant include: a research collaboration with Roswell Park Cancer Institute for whole-genome DNA sequencing and bioinformatics analysis; acquisition of new research instrumentation and materials to study gene expression in biological specimens; annual support for three students to perform summer research on campus; and travel expenses for Dr. Ferguson and his students to attend national research conferences.

Ferguson, who earned a doctorate in genetics and gene regulation from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, utilizes fruit flies as a model system to understand how, when and where genes get turned on and off during development and in response to environmental stimuli.

“The signaling processes that I study in the fly are nearly identical to those found in humans,” Ferguson said. “In fact, 75 percent of human disease genes have a functional analogue in flies which makes them an excellent system where we can make inroads into our understanding of human biology.”

The principal goal of the project is to understand the genetic and environmental signals that control how normal development occurs and explain what causes things to go wrong. All of the diversity of cell types and tissues in the body is controlled by genes being turned on and off in a specific way that is appropriate for their given context, Ferguson explained.

“We are studying the detailed molecular switches that control production of a growth factor, the human homologue of which is inappropriately turned on in numerous forms of cancer,” he added. “The production of this protein — called Gurken in flies, and Transforming Growth Factor Alpha in humans — is tightly controlled and only permitted in certain corners of some cells at specific times during their lives. The hope is that, by understanding the regulatory mechanisms that bring about this carefully orchestrated expression, we can identify novel treatments for diseases where this control has broken down.”

Fredonia students will be in an enviable position to benefit from Ferguson’s research activities.

"This grant will enable Dr. Ferguson to offer incredible research-based opportunities to students,” said Patricia Astry, chair of the Department of Biology. “The scale of research that Fredonia students will be doing is directly comparable to research they would be doing at Ph.D.-granting universities in graduate school. It will make them considerably more competitive applicants for graduate or medical school. Students that participated on the grant are currently in Ph.D. programs at UC Berkeley, Cornell University and the University at Albany. Another student is working in the Center for Personalized Medicine at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. There is little question that the research they did at Fredonia helped to propel them into these competitive positions."

“Dr. Ferguson’s grant is a wonderful accomplishment,” added former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences John Kijinski. “The work that results from this grant will be important in adding to our knowledge of how diseases are related to genetic codes. Furthermore, it will allow students in our biology program to be part of an important research effort. A significant feature of our science departments is that they offer our undergraduates access to first-rate research opportunities.”

One of those students was Danielle Hindes, a Molecular Genetics major from Rensselaer, N.Y., now an alumna, who served as an officer in Fredonia’s chapter of the National Biological Honor Society, Beta Beta Beta.

“I’ve been given a great opportunity said Ms. Hindes. “To work in a research lab with such high-level resources at a smaller university is unusual, and I’m thrilled for the innumerable prospects that this grant has and will give.”

Each summer, the grant funds individual $4,000 stipends — an amount comparable to those offered at large universities — for three students, from either Fredonia or regional community colleges, to be engaged in full-time research experiences with Ferguson. The students were intimately involved in the design and execution of the experiments and had the opportunity to present the results at regional and national meetings. The research directly impacted not only the students working in Ferguson’s laboratory, but also students enrolled in the two lab courses that he teaches.

“I strive to blur the lines between research and teaching by bringing my scholarship into the Genetics and Molecular Genetics lab courses,” said Ferguson, who directs the Molecular Genetics program at Fredonia. “By providing all of our students with a bonafide research experience in the core curriculum, we are ensuring that they graduate with real-world analytical skills that they can apply following graduation.”

The grant enabled Ferguson and 10 students to conferences in Washington, D.C.; San Diego, Calif., and Chicago.

NSF grants have become highly competitive recently, with only four out of 35 applications in the Molecular and Cellular Biosciences division gaining approval in the most recent cycle, Ferguson said, who recalls acceptance rates closer to one-in-three when he was a graduate student. He received internal grants and scholarly incentive awards from Fredonia to assemble data in support of his NSF application.

“The commitment to supporting innovative research programs has made Fredonia a vibrant environment for students and faculty to thrive together as scholars,” Ferguson added. “This grant recognizes Fredonia as a destination where students receive world-class training in the sciences.”

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