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NSF Grant Bolsters Research for Prof. Natalie Nannas


Supported by a $86,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation, Assistant Professor of Biology Natalie Nannas is on sabbatical studying an aspect of chromosomal cell division that could help inform fertility treatments and may also apply to cancer therapies.

Nannas and her research partner, Associate Professor Wojtek Pawlowski of Cornell University, jointly obtained the NSF Research Opportunity Award grant. Nannas is a visiting professor at Cornell, working remotely (so far) with Wojtek's lab. For part of the sabbatical she’ll train on 2-photon microscopy and super-resolution microscopy, learning skills that will bolster her research.

More than 80 Hamilton students in her Genes and Genomes Course over the last two years have been involved with her work, including through their senior thesis projects. When Nannas teaches the course again in spring 2022, students will continue to be part of her ongoing research.

As a research associate, I have found myself performing the same molecular techniques Professor Nannas once taught me in Genes and Genomes. She instilled in me the foundation necessary to independently design my own genetic components to amplify a gene, which gave me an edge when first carrying out my research.

Daniela Gonzalez ’19

Using maize plants, Nannas and Wojtek study how chromosomes behave during meiosis. They are examining how chromosomes use a surveillance mechanism called the spindle checkpoint to guarantee that genetic material is properly separated during cell division. They identify and characterize proteins such as MAD2 that protect the integrity of chromosome segregation.

Nannas is interested in how to get the right number of chromosomes into cells. “I've been studying these questions for a while about how cells separate their chromosomes correctly. We know if cells make mistakes, there can be some pretty severe consequences. If you do it wrong, in most cells of your body, it's a precursor for cancer. These cells with errors can turn into tumors,” she explained. “And if you do it wrong in meiosis, which is  the cell division I study, you produce eggs and sperm that have the wrong number of chromosomes. This can lead to infertility, miscarriage and birth defects.”

She uses CRISPR, a new genetic engineering technology, and introduces her Genes and Genomes students to CRISPR through her research. She sees the students get excited about doing meaningful work, excited enough that sometimes she holds an extra lab session on a Friday afternoon because they want to figure out how to get their samples to work.

 “It’s been really neat to see the independence that comes with the lab. By the end of the class, they're pouring their own gels and doing their own DNA extractions. I'm there and available, but they don't really need me. I think they gain a lot of confidence from that. They think that they're ready to go on, should they want to go into a laboratory,” Nannas said.

Acacia Bowden ’20, who is now in her first year of medical school at the University of Rochester, will take her first grad school genetics course next semester and feels confident that she was well-prepared in Genes and Genomes. She took other courses with Nannas, worked in her lab, and Nannas became her academic and senior thesis advisor. 

I began working in her lab my sophomore year and with her guidance and teaching, I learned the foundations of conducting scientific research... Research requires problem-solving and analytical thinking and both have helped me in medical school.

Acacia Bowden ’20

“Since I wanted to pursue a career in medicine, her work with MAD2 was of particular interest to me due to its potential long-term implications on cancer, miscarriage, birth defects, and infertility. CRISPR is also a relatively new technology that has many medical applications and I wanted to further my knowledge of the technology before it becomes widely used in clinical medicine,” Bowden said.

 

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