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CMU biologist receives $740,000 early career award

Xantha Karp will use grant to study mysteries of organism development

Contact: Heather Smith

The ways organisms develop, and how they adapt when things go wrong, fascinate biologist Xantha Karp.

For Karp, an assistant professor in Central Michigan University's College of Science and Engineering, they're part of "the big, big question."

Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, Karp will receive $740,000 over the next five years to follow her passion in depth. This month the foundation announced Karp received its Faculty Early Career Development Program award.

The prestigious prize is open only to pre-tenured professors. Karp, in her fifth year at CMU, said she was thrilled with the honor.

Tracy Galarowicz, who chairs CMU's biology department, called the honor "well-deserved."

"The research will increase our understanding of developmental biology across species," she said,  "and the award recognizes the importance and quality of her research." 

Karp is the third CMU faculty member in two years to be honored for early-career research. Ben Swarts, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, received the same award just days ahead of Karp. He's getting $660,000 over five years to study the defense mechanisms of certain bacteria.

In 2016, Matthew Redshaw, an assistant professor of physics, received the U.S. Department of Energy's prestigious Early Career Research Program award.  

The NSF's career award requires both research and educational components. It does not fund health research, although the studies sometimes can expand knowledge of health-related issues.

Suspended development

Karp says many animals enter a stage of suspended development during times of crisis, such as food shortages. Although development halts, it isn't hibernation; the creature can move about and attempt to improve its situation.

Karp wants to know what happens, if anything, when development resumes.

The focus of Karp's study is a microscopic worm called C. elegans.

"It's a great model because it's very simple," she said. "It has less than 1,000 cells but it still has nerves, muscles and a lot of the same tissues we have."

Under duress, the worm experiences suspended development called dauer — the German word for "durable."

And while humans don't experience dauer, people and C. elegans share a class of molecules called microRNA that switch genes on and off during the worm's arrested development.

"It turns out they're really important in humans both for normal development and in cancer," Karp said. "They're also very important in stem cells."

Studying the worms will give researchers an excellent chance to observe the molecular activity under different conditions.

For each of the five years, the grant will pay for a doctoral candidate and a student working on a master's degree. Under Karp's supervision, they will lead a team of three or four undergraduates in daily experiments.

STEM education

The educational component involves STEM research for future teachers. Each year, three undergraduate students majoring in education with a focus on biology or integrated sciences will have a chance to conduct research in CMU's biology labs.

The students then will design hands-on activities that children in grades seven though 10 will carry out at summer camps.

"The idea is to increase confidence and knowledge about the scientific process so they will be more effective teachers," Karp said.

In carrying out the two components, Karp will partner with biology faculty member Debra Linton and CMU's Center for Excellence in STEM Education.

The grant also allows Karp to build on earlier work. In 2015, she received a $350,687 award from the National Institutes of Health to further her work in stem cell research that also emphasized the C. elegans' dauer state.

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