Monday, August 12, 2013

Alumna wins major grant for kinesins research

One of our alumnae recently won a major grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue her research on the inner workings of crucial proteins inside every human cell.

Susan Pond Gilbert ’72 received a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) grant from NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The $2 million grant will support her research for an additional five years, with the potential for another 3-5 years of funding. Her research has continued with NIH grant funding for 19 years.

“These MERIT awards are really terrific,” Gilbert said. “They provide long-term sustained support for one’s research program and the freedom to explore cutting-edge scientific ideas that may involve more risk.”

Gilbert majored in chemistry at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and later earned advanced degrees in microbiology and cell biology. Today, she is professor and head of the Department of Biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Her research focuses on kinesins, microscopic proteins that transport cargoes by moving around on microtubules, known as the highways of the cell. She specifically has focused on the way kinesins interact with the microtubules. Among other interactions, kinesins can actually remodel the microtubules to create a spindle apparatus, which helps ensure that chromosomes are copied accurately when a new cell is formed. Understanding kinesins is important for pharmaceutical companies that need to test new drugs, Gilbert said.

Gilbert chose to major in chemistry because of a quantitative analysis course that required independent experimentation. She enjoyed working independently on research projects to answer basic questions using chemistry. “The chemistry major had really infused the curriculum with independent inquiry that nobody really talked about at that time, but now it is considered the way to teach,” she said. “Having the faculty directly in the lab and having the low student-faculty ratio was incredibly important.”

Randolph continues to offer the same student-centered environment that Gilbert experienced, offering the Summer Research Program and Randolph Innovative Student Experience grants to encourage students to work on research independently or with professors.

Gilbert added that the broad-based curriculum emphasizing strong writing and analytical skills was also beneficial to her career. “I represent what one gains by going to a smaller liberal arts college where one can do hands-on research, and it was at R-MWC where I learned the thrill and passion for discovery through scientific research” she said.