The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Suffolk University a three-year, $281,540 grant for research into bacterial mating, which is the transfer of DNA from one cell to another.

Will help launch careers

“The biggest impact this grant will have is enabling our students to gain valuable research experience earlier on in their training,” said Melanie Berkmen, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “In the end, what they will have learned from participating in this project will help them to get into top-tier graduate programs and careers in the biosciences.”

Berkmen submitted her first-ever NSF Research in Undergraduate Institutions application in September 2011.

Her “RUI: Characterization of a Conserved ATPase Required for Conjugation of Bacillus subtilis” application was among the top four of 65 grant proposals NSF reviewed and the only RUI to receive a high-priority rating.

“In simple terms, my students and I study how bacteria mate,” said Berkmen of the research project. “Bacterial mating is the transfer of DNA from one bacterial cell to another through a specialized channel or pore.

“Mating is rampant in the bacterial world and is responsible for moving genes involved in everything from antibiotic resistance to bioremediation. Thus, mating is of significant medical concern and has played a profound role in allowing bacteria to adapt to environmental changes.”

The grant will support the research project over a three-year period and fund the purchase of a research-grade fluorescence microscope. This piece of equipment, designed to visualize bacterial cells at a high magnification, will provide students the opportunity to be involved in a broader range of research interests while learning sophisticated microscopy techniques.

Since joining the University five years ago, Berkmen has mentored 14 undergraduate students. Four are co-authors on papers; eight have presented at national or regional meetings; and three are now in Ph.D. programs.

Highly motivated student researchers

“My students have been highly motivated, persistent and excited about their research,” she said. “I can claim what I can do because of the hard work and great things that they have already done.”

While preparing her grant application, Berkmen took advantage of the many resources that Suffolk’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs has to offer, including a two-day grant writing workshop. She praised the efforts of the office, in particular Senior Grants Administrator Jennifer Giglio, for providing her with vital statistical information for her proposal about how Suffolk supports the sciences.

Looking ahead, Berkmen is thrilled about working closely with her students on this project each step of the way, guiding and encouraging them along a path of scientific discovery.

“I love mentoring and seeing my students grow to succeed and reach their full potential,” she said.