The CAREER award from the National Science Foundation is the most prestigious honor the organization presents to young researchers, providing significant funding to advance the recipient’s research and educational objectives. These highly-competitive awards are presented to a select group of scholars who, as the NSF explains, “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.” This spring, Baylor University faculty earned a school record four NSF CAREER awards. Meet one such researcher below or click here to learn about other 2020 Baylor recipients.
Glycans are a class of biomolecule, found within the body, that cover the cells and have meaningful biological implications. Although their importance is widely recognized, glycans are very difficult to characterize. For an analytical chemist like Elyssia Gallagher
, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, that challenge presents an opportunity to blaze new paths in search of a solution.
“My goal is to analyze molecules, or characterize them,” Gallagher said. “Specifically, I’m really interested in glycans, sugar structures that get added to your cells and various proteins in your cells. For a long time, they’ve been very hard to characterize.”
Gallagher recently won a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to propel her laboratory’s
research towards altogether new methods for analyzing and understanding the function of glycans, providing deeper insight into the ways they work and impact the body.
Differences Amidst Uniformity
The difficulty in characterizing glycans comes in part from their uniform weight. Other molecules can be characterized through their unique masses or weights. The mass of the entire molecule, as well as the weights of its individual components, provides clues into its composition, its structures and its function.
Different glycan structures, however, can have the same weight as other structures. But, because the atoms are arranged in very disparate ways throughout that same mass, they can function in very distinct and important ways, such as the manner in which they interact with viruses such as the flu or bacteria and initiate infection.
“One of the basic ideas in biology is that the structure of these molecules is related to what they do in the body or their function in the body,” Gallagher said. “With glycans, we’ve been limited as a society in our ability to look at these, to characterize them, to think about how they work and what function they have. So, the NSF is funding the development of methods that will enable some of these more complicated analyses down the road.”
Molecules are often characterized through a technique called mass spectrometry. Through it, analytical chemists measure the molecule’s mass and look at their three-dimensional structure; structure provides a window into their function in the body. Breaking the molecules apart and analyzing their component parts further paints that picture. Gallagher’s charge is to develop more complicated analyses methods that lead to new insights down the road.
“In terms of devising new methods, there are many challenges. Some of them are related to the fact that we, as society, haven’t had the tools to address certain biological questions,” Gallagher said. “These new tools can come in the form of advances in computing power, instruments that can measure small amounts of sample or very small sizes, or various other factors. In any type of method development work, we aim to do something new, something which hasn’t been done before.
“This grant is a valuable recognition that people within the field recognize the novelty of what we’re doing.”
Collegiate Science in High School
Gallagher’s trailblazing research isn’t the only beneficial aspect of the NSF CAREER Award. Before she was an analytical chemist, she was a high school student with a growing love of science; her grant provides her with an avenue to help current and future high school students follow that path.
“NSF awards recognize both research excellence and a strong educational impact,” Gallagher says. “I feel like this is right up Baylor’s alley because, even as we move toward becoming an R1 research university, we maintain a focus on strong educational initiatives.”
Gallagher has built a partnership with Education Service Center (ESC)-Region 12, a nonprofit service organization which provides resources to educators in school systems in 12 Central Texas counties; she has held teacher training workshops in years past for area teachers. The educational portion of her NSF Award will enable her to further that partnership through the development of active learning plans for high school science teachers to implement in the classroom.
“Interacting with teachers in those workshops, we’ve found that high school science teachers often don’t feel like there’s a great deal of training opportunities or continuing education for them,” Gallagher said. “This grant will allow us to develop learning plans for teachers to use on higher-order science concepts that often aren’t introduced until college.”
As an analytical chemist, Gallagher’s research in understanding the biological function of molecules is at the intersection of those two disciplines—chemistry and biology. Through these active learning plans, the cross-disciplinary nature of many scientific pursuits will be introduced to high school students in engaging, interactive ways to expand their horizons and understanding of what type of opportunities are available in the sciences.
A Continuum of Research
Four Baylor faculty members earned CAREER grants this spring. Gallagher and her grant-winning colleagues combined for a single-year record for the University and added momentum to Baylor’s burgeoning research portfolio. As Baylor pursues R1 research status, guided by the roadmap of Illuminate
, the University’s strategic plan, awards such as Gallagher’s further demonstrate that faculty members are applying research in ways that benefit their disciplines and society—the search for solutions to great challenges.
Practically, the grants provide funding, as well, that supports not only the research, but the inclusion of students in that research.
“These awards provide honorees with multi-year funding for their research, enabling them to support undergraduate and graduate students working in their laboratories,” Nancy Brickhouse, Ph.D., Baylor University Provost, said. “There is also a kind of prestige that goes along with a CAREER grant because it signals that an external funding agency has selected them as someone they see as a role model teacher-scholar.”
Gallagher’s lab, for instance, includes undergraduate students, graduate students and postdocs in the support of never-before-created methods for the characterization of glycans.
“To me, it’s a continuum of research,” Gallagher said. “My undergraduates aren’t treated differently; they don’t have different research objectives. They work alongside grad students and postdocs on programs that are relevant to the group as a whole. At every level, it’s something new and novel. I think becoming a top-tier research university goes hand-in-hand with providing opportunities for undergraduates, as well as graduate students, to be involved in big research questions.”