Biology professors receive $225,000 AREA grant from National Institutes of Health

Friday, Apr 10, 2009

Ginger Withers and Chris Wallace, Dr. Robert F. Welty Associate Professors of Biology, have received a $225,000 Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Division of Child Health and Development to continue their cutting edge research on dendrite growth in brain cells.

This is only the second time that Whitman has been awarded funding from the AREA program. Designed to both support basic biomedical research and promote student training, the AREA grant is a good fit for Whitman’s goal of creating a rich environment for experiential learning.

The grant will provide money for Withers and Wallace to continue their research into how brain cells interact to promote the formation of synaptic connections between neurons. Because these connections are important for brain function, they explain, understanding their development is an important human health issue. The impact of this grant on their research, said Withers, is tremendous. “The kind of research that we do takes money, but funding from the NIH brings Whitman much more than just dollars to run a lab.”

Sitting in their lab in 322 Science, Withers and Wallace emphasized the importance of this grant not only to fund their research program, but also to allow them to continue collaborating with students as “Team Dendrite.” (Dendrites are the tree-like branches of neurons that form the receptive surface for synaptic connections). The grant, on which Withers is primary investigator and Wallace is co-primary investigator, will enable them to perform technically sophisticated analyses as well as to create new opportunities to involve students though thesis projects and summer internships. “That balance between advancing our individual scholarship and training students is important to us,” said Wallace, and in fact the proposal submitted to NIH included preliminary data generated by previous students.

With this NIH funding, Withers and Wallace will pursue their recent findings that dendritic development is influenced profoundly at multiple stages by signals coming from “glia,” another type of brain cell. “The proposed work,” says their grant proposal “will advance our understanding of the mechanisms by which glial cells influence synapse formation, to further our understanding of normal and pathological neural development.”

The ideas for this new project arose from Withers’ previous work at Whitman on the development of neurons that was supported by the National Science Foundation. The CAREER Award, which she received in 2002 and just ended in December, provided “seed money” to help develop new teaching approaches while she established her research at Whitman. The CAREER award and part of a Whitman Keck award, allowed she and Wallace to create student “live cell imaging” work stations, which closely emulate her state-of-the-art microscope, while helping to incorporate digital microscopy into the college’s biology curriculum.

Both professors noted the gathering momentum at Whitman to integrate teaching and scholarship. “The success of this grant reflects an exciting synergistic effort on campus by faculty, staff and students.”

CONTACT: Lenel Parish, Whitman College News Service, (509) 527-5156