Ben Swarts wants to learn more about what makes certain bacteria so tough, especially bacteria that leave their human hosts twisted in pain.
And now Swarts, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Central Michigan University, will receive $660,000 over five years to do fundamental research aimed at gaining a better understanding of these one-celled creatures.
Swarts is completing his fourth year at CMU, and he recently received the
National Science Foundation's highly competitive Faculty Early Career Development Program award. It's open only to pre-tenured professors.
Swarts said the award "is a total reflection" of the many talented students who have worked in his labs.
"To me, one of the best things CMU offers, especially in the STEM fields, is the ability to do really cutting-edge research one-on-one with dedicated faculty members," he said.
Swarts' work will focus on a bacteria suborder called the Corynebacterineae.
"A lot of these bacteria are really important in industry for biotechnology processes like producing fuels and biological molecules," he said.
This particular bacterium interests Swarts because the subgroup includes many important pathogens, such as the one that causes tuberculosis and several related diseases in animals.
Specifically, Swarts and his fellow researchers will examine the organisms' outer membrane.
"This membrane helps to give the cell shape," Swarts said. "It also helps to provide defense from external assaults. So it's really important to the bacteria's ability to survive, and in some cases, infect hosts."
Swarts said this membrane "fits the bill" for his research. It's "absolutely essential" for the bacterium's survival, but on a chemical level nothing in the membrane is found in humans.
In other words, strategies that target the membrane and kill bacterial cells should not affect human cells — this means no side effects for people.
The problem, Swarts said, is that many aspects of this membrane are not well-understood. That's where the research and the grant come in. Filling in the missing pieces can lead to new drugs and improved diagnoses, he said.
To help accomplish that, the grant will support:
• Stipends for undergraduate students doing lab work during the summer. It funds two students for the first two years and three for the final three years;
• A postdoctoral fellow for three years;
• An outreach program involving area community colleges. It keys on students in STEM fields, particularly chemistry, who will be encouraged to participate in summer research pertaining to the project;
• Materials and supplies for CMU students to conduct the project; and
• The use of major instrumentation at CMU and Michigan State University that are essential for the research.
Swarts' message to high school students: CMU offers undergrads research opportunities they'd rarely find elsewhere.
"I think we have a really incredible blend of great resources and productivity in research," he said, "but also that core mission of working with students, especially undergraduate students, one-on-one."
Mary Tecklenburg, the department of chemistry and biochemistry chair within CMU's
College of Science and Engineering, said she was delighted to hear of Swarts' success.
"This national recognition of our faculty shows the quality of research that is happening at CMU," she said.