Doug Juers

Doug Juers, associate professor of physics, has been awarded a $202,400 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study ways of improving the X-ray diffraction method of determining the shapes of biological molecules. Detailed knowledge of macromolecular structures, such as proteins and nucleic acids, is important for understanding the molecular basis of biological function and aids in developing effective treatments for disease.

“One part of macromolecular X-ray structure determination involves cryogenic sample cooling. Right now this process is sort of an art form, and is often a limiting factor,” Juers said. “We have an idea for a more predictable cooling method, which the grant will allow us to test.”

The three-year grant, titled, “New Predictive Methods for Cryoprotection in Macromolecular Crystallography,” will support Juers’ student-faculty research. The experiments will be conducted primarily by Whitman students and a recent graduate, as well as a collaborator from the Eppley Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical School.

“In the lab, the students use many concepts and techniques learned in courses. They discuss their experiments with each other – developing and testing ideas,” he said. “In the three years we should have a pretty good idea if our method will be effective.”

Juers said the NIH grant would not have been possible without preliminary data generated by Whitman students. He also credits the 2007 acquisition of X-ray diffraction instrumentation, purchased with the $465,934 grant from the National Science Foundation written by Juers and several colleagues, for the award consideration.

The grant, an Academic Research Enhancement Award, or AREA grant, marks Whitman’s third such NIH grant. Most recently, in 2009, Ginger Withers and Chris Wallace, Dr. Robert F. Welty associate professors of biology, received a $225,000 AREA grant to continue their research on dendrite growth in brain cells.