NSF Awards $1 Million CAREER Grant to UA Professor
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The National Science Foundation has selected a University of Alabama professor for a CAREER Award, NSF’s most prestigious recognition of top-performing young scientists.
Dr. Patrick Frantom, assistant professor of chemistry in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, was awarded a $1 million, five-year grant for his research in understanding how enzymes evolve diverse properties and abilities.
Frantom, who joined UA’s faculty in 2009, studies the mechanisms of enzyme function. Enzymes are proteins that perform chemical reactions in a living cell. In living systems, enzymes are highly regulated, which means they are activated and deactivated in response to changes in their environment. How the enzymes regulate this activity, known as allosteric regulation, is not well understood at the molecular level.
“The family of enzymes we are studying share a common structure, or ‘scaffolding,’ which nature has diversified to allow for a wide range of chemical reactions and regulatory mechanisms. We want to investigate all versions of these scaffolds to map how differences in them can cause different reactions and cause the enzymes to turn on or turn off those reactions,” Frantom said.
Frantom’s long-term goal is to understand how allosteric and catalytic mechanisms work together in enzymes, which could impact how scientists use them in real-world applications.
Versions of the enzymatic scaffolding number in the thousands and require the use of sophisticated technology to organize them. Frantom has incorporated his knowledge of mechanistic enzymology with an approach known as bioinformatics to study the enzymes. Bioinformatics uses cutting-edge computational techniques to store, organize and analyze information about molecules.
“Once organized, we can hopefully start to tease out trends in how certain changes occur in the scaffolding that effect functioning,” Frantom said.
Frantom is working with Dr. Patricia Babbitt at the University of California, San Francisco who pioneered bioinformatics techniques. A portion of Frantom’s NSF funding will allow a graduate student from his laboratory to train with Babbitt on the bioinformatics techniques. In addition, the CAREER grant allocates funds to improve computational equipment in the department, so that some of the bioinformatics work can be done internally.
Frantom’s grant also supports undergraduate student involvement. It will fund the creation of a laboratory course designed to mimic key experiences of undergraduate research that focus on performing original hypothesis-driven experiments. The course is aimed at replacing traditional lab courses that ask students to simply replicate a known outcome with the opportunity to do research more in line with real-life chemistry research. In addition, the grant will fund upgrading facilities and equipment in the laboratories to support the new course.
Another portion of the funding will support students conducting original research in UA’s Emerging Scholars program. As part of the grant, former Emerging Scholars will be employed as researchers and have the opportunity to continue their efforts beyond the customary one-year term. The aim is to provide enhanced research mentoring opportunities to undergraduates studying biochemistry at UA.
Frantom will also collaborate with researchers from the University of Waterloo in Canada and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York as part of the project.
The department of chemistry is part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.
The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.