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Western, Davidson College receive $1 million grant

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded just over $1 million to Missouri Western and Davidson College for collaborative undergraduate synthetic biology research.  This is the largest grant Western has ever received.

At the Sep. 19 press conference in the Remington Hall atrium, President Vartabedian said the synthetic biology, team received three previous grants equaling $640,000 worth of research.

“Well, we’ve got the topper to announce today,” Vartabedian said.

The Western synthetic biology research team is led by Dr. Todd Eckdahl, professor of biology and Dr. Jeff Poet, professor of mathematics.

NSF grants are competitive.  Eckdahl said the funding rate from the Molecular and Cellular Biology Directorate of the NSF is 12 to 15 percent.

“So, we’re very fortunate to be in this position,” Eckdahl said.  “The NSF is asking us to try and develop a system that can program bacteria to control their metabolism.”

The NSF grant will fund the stipends of faculty and 18 students, selected each spring, for full-time, 10-week research efforts each summer for the next three years.

“I think that is what truly sets us apart from other universities, that we make a concerted effort to involve our undergraduates in research…working hand-in-hand with our outstanding faculty members,” Vartabedian said.

Poet said the team’s goals were to make sure faculty and students learned a lot, to have fun and to contribute to the advancement of science and mathematics.

“We have been very successful at accomplishing these goals in the past and look forward to working with new teams of students,” Poet said.

So far, 79 students from Western and Davidson have participated in synthetic biology research.  They won multiple awards at the iGEM Synthetic Biology Competition and published 10 papers, two in the Journal of Biological Engineering.

“Truly, they have left their mark on a very exciting field and it is no surprise that the National Science Foundation has acknowledged and supported this,” Vartabedian said.

Claire Shinneman, a senior biology major graduating in December, said, “We learned a lot about not only science but personal interests as well.”

Josh Chester, senior mathematics major said the summer research convinced him of what he wants to do with the rest of his life.

“As a result, I’ve gone into a higher gear of looking at graduate schools,” Chester said.  “Basically, I feel a lot more confident that I’ll excel in a graduate environment.”

The students of last summer’s research team spent up to 70 hours together in the lab each week.  This fostered a close-knit group.

Brandon Grieshaber, a junior biology major, calls them a family.

“It takes a lot of time and some failures to build something,” Sachith Polpitiya Arachchige, junior biology major, said.  “You get an idea of what you want to do in the future.”

Dr. Brian Cronk, Faculty Assistant to Provost and Director of Grants & Funds for Research said, “The experiences that Missouri Western students get are unlike the experiences that undergraduates get at any other school in the state.”

“You develop skills as a person and where you want to go,” Grieshaber said.  “Skills that you won’t learn in a classroom.”

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